SIOUX CITY -- More than 20 years ago, a middle school principal in a small Tennessee town wanted her students to learn a lesson about tolerance.
Despite the fact that the mining town of Whitwell had a population that was 99.9 percent white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Linda Hooper's students were moved by the plight of the estimated 6 million Jews who were killed between 1939 and 1945 under the authority of Adolf Hitler.
"Towns don't come much more homogeneous than Whitwell," the now-retired principal said. "But the students knew that the story of the Holocaust was something that could never be forgotten."
Through an internet search, Hooper's students discovered that paper clips were often worn on lapels as a silent protest against Nazi occupation.
Subsequently, Whitwell Middle School students collected paper clips to represent each life lost. In addition, the kids enlisted the help of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as well as celebrities like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg in spreading the message.
What was once a simple idea turned into, quite unintentionally, a worldwide phenomenon, drawing international media attention and letters of support from literally every continent.
Whitwell Middle School's "Paper Clips Project" spawned a Children's Holocaust Museum, which continues, to this day, bringing tourists into the blue-collar town.
Hooper's students became the subjects of 2005's "Paper Clips," an award-winning documentary, and Hooper will be the keynote speaker for Sioux City's Tolerance Week events, which begin Monday.
Specifically, Hooper will speak to eighth-graders following a shortened version of "Paper Clips," which will be shown at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre, 529 Pierce St.
At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, an open-to-the-public showing of "Paper Clips," along with a program from Hooper, also will be held at the Orpheum.
"Nowadays, tolerance seems to be in short supply," Hooper said during a phone interview from her Tennessee home. "If people would remember the Bible verse that we 'owe no one anything, except to love each other,' we'd be so much better off."
It is still amazing that the Children's Holocaust Memorial is located at a middle school that didn't have any Jewish kids. How did it come about?
"Within the school, there was little tolerance for diversity. Like their parents and grandparents, children were choosing the familiarity of a small town over outside education or exploration. When kids would leave town after high school, they'd have difficulty and would return."
That's when you started a voluntary, after-school program, right?
"Yes, it was started by our associate principal, language arts teacher and myself. We looked at humanitarian atrocities, worldwide, including the Holocaust. The first year, 40 students participated and the response were overwhelmingly positive. Children who had previously shunned one another began sitting together in the cafeteria."
It sounds like the project got kids thinking about what 6 million actually look like?
"This was a question posed by our eighth-graders. They began writing letters to relatives, friends, celebrities and world leaders, telling about their goal of collecting 6 million paper clips. If you could see 6 million paper clips, it seemed more real. The students actually received more than 30 million paper clips before we stopped counting. Not only that, but they received letters of support as well as memories written by Holocaust survivors and their families."
Those letters, paper clips and an authentic German transport car formed the basis of the Children's Holocaust Museum, right?
"It did, and it continues to attract visitors from around the world. The idea would not have succeeded without the students. They give the tours, they maintain the museum. Goodness, they even do yard work and polish glass inside the museum."
This is now their legacy. They have a vested interest in it.
"That's exactly right. The kids are looking outside of themselves while making a difference. Young people can change the world and, sometimes, it just takes one clip at a time."