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COLFAX - A group of students at Ridgeview High School in Colfax have been keeping odd hours at school lately.

Those students, who were starting school as early as 7 a.m. and sometimes leaving at 8:30 p.m. for the past few weeks, weren't studying for exams or participating in sports. They were filling in a gap created by the absence of a favorite teacher while helping others in the community.

Pam Rathke, who usually leads the Adopt-A-Family program at Christmas, is with her daughter, "who had a tumor the size of a tennis ball on the brain stem," at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., said Ridgeview Junior-Senior High School Principal Jim Campbell.

With the Rathkes in mind, the students pulled together to help those 39 adopted families in need. They packed and delivered parcels on Friday.

For each family, students packed three boxes of food and a laundry basket filled with practical items, such as laundry soap and toothbrushes. Each family also received presents for the children and parents and stuffed stockings.

"A big part we're proud of is that we did it on our free time," said Chad Malinowkski, a senior heading up the program with fellow students Mackenzie Roth and Becca Maurer.

It was a tough November for staff and students at Ridgeview. A controversial concert upset some students, a popular student died, and then the beloved teacher faced the family medical crisis, Campbell said.

Every school has one teacher who does so much, and "Pam is the one here," Campbell said of Rathke, who has taught in the district about 25 years. "She lived here 24 hours a day."

She works with the Captains leadership program and Adopt-A-Family and led a canned food drive for McLean County Community Compact Program. With her help, Ridgeview collected the most cans in the county - thousands more than most schools.

It's uncertain when Rathke will be back. When she took time off to be in Memphis and help her daughter, a fourth-grade student at Ridgeview, high school students thought the annual Christmas drive at the school might be canceled because she did so much.

"We really didn't think we'd be able to do this without her," Malinowski said.

"Our kids have done it (collected donations for the Adopt-A-Family program) and done it as well as it has ever been done," Campbell said.

"They know what they are doing," said Mary Cay Hahn, a guidance counselor who has been an adviser in the effort.

She asked students what they needed and helped them get it done, but they led the way.

Hahn said she had been searching for Christmas.

"It hit me in the face: It's these kids," she said.

"I wish you could see our gym," she said Thursday, describing mounds of gifts, candy and presents destined to families needing them.

"I am so proud of these kids," Campbell said.

Malinowski, a senior, was among the students loading and delivering the gifts Friday.

This is the third year he participated in the program, and he knew how things went. He just didn't know how much was involved until Rathke wasn't there to direct them.

The most rewarding part of the project for Malinowski is delivering the gifts to the families. "It's extra special," he said.

The Pantagraph/DAVIDPROEBER

Abby Ogan, a sophomore at Ridgeview High School, welcomes help from senior Chad Malinowski as they load Christmas gifts Friday afternoon to be delivered to needy families in their Adopt-A-Family program. Students collected enough toys and food to make Christmas complete for 39 families.

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