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Contributed photo by Angi Howell / First-graders at Collegedale Academy sell baked goods at lunch to raise money to help koalas affected by the Australian wildfires.

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Collegedale first-graders help koalas

When Stacie Schepers saw photos of koalas burning in the Australian wildfires, the first-grade teacher at Collegedale Academy knew she needed to do something.

She taught her students what koalas eat, where they live, how they carry their babies, and how many koalas are estimated to have been hurt by the fires.

As of January, it was estimated that one-third of the koala population in New South Wales had been killed in the fires, Susan Ley, the federal environment minister, told the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, according to a New York Times report.

When Schepers shared the effects of the fires on the koala population with her students, they were just as passionate as she was about doing anything they could to help.

"They're very tenderhearted toward animals," Schepers said of her students who, along with Michelle Adams' first-graders, were successful in raising $1,500 to send to the Australian Koala Foundation.

Over the course of a week, the first-graders sold baked goods to fellow students to help raise money.

"They were getting burned, and we decided we wanted to help them," said Lucie First, one of Schepers' students, who came up with the idea to sell their artwork to raise even more funds.

Art teacher Gina Graham spent three days working with the students on their projects, some of which brought in more than $100 apiece, Schepers said.

Another student, Elliot Erhard, raised $70 on her own by selling koala charm bracelets to other students and to people in her neighborhood. Each bracelet took an hour to make, said Elliot.

"Eucalyptus trees can explode in the fires," she said as to why she wanted to help the koalas.

Eucalyptus leaves, which make up a large part of koalas' diet, contain flammable oils — which is part of the reason koalas have been affected more than other animals by the fires. They're also slow-moving, and their instinct is to climb into the trees when they sense they're in danger, said Schepers.

She said she requested that the Australian Koala Foundation use the funds primarily to provide medical attention to burned koalas, as well as to restore their habitat and to plant more trees.

Lucie said she was surprised that the fundraiser was as successful as it was, as she'd thought they'd probably raise around $400. Its success has made her want to help other animals as well, particularly pandas, she said.

Email Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com.

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