Eighth grade students at Northridge Middle School in Van Buren have collected more than four pallets full of school supplies, clothes, candy and toiletries to send to children in Africa.

After studying a reading and writing unit on child soldiers in Africa, students led an initiative to collect items to help improve the lives of African children.

"We chose a topic that we thought would get kids passionate and engaged," said Angela Mankins, the Northridge teacher who taught the unit.

In Mankins’ class, students view a 2006 documentary entitled "Invisible Children" about two young boys whose older brother was killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda. The boys are abducted by the LRA and forced to fight as soldiers, but escape and go into hiding.

"It walks you through the lifestyle of these kids. Through this, the students were exposed to how the children live in Africa," Mankins said.

After watching the video, several students felt more needed to be done to help children in Africa.

Kevin Burris was one of the first to speak out in class, Mankins said.

"It was so sad - I think we were all crying," Burris said, nodding to his classmate Aubrey Hanna.

Hanna was affected by the boys crying over their dead brother.

"That just hit me because I have a little brother," Hanna said. "I would do anything for my little brother, that’s what motivated me. If my little brother died, I don’t know what I’d do."

"Invisible Children" shows the reality of many poor African children, who must do without shoes, food, new clothes or even a place to sleep.

"They were moved to tears, because they didn’t realize that children had to live this way," Mankins said.

Burris also was angered, he said, by the children’s predicament and helplessness.

Students first adopted #childrennotsoldiers to show solidarity with African children, but decided it was not enough, Mankins said.

"We decided we wanted to take it a step further and just help the children of Africa," Mankins said. "We wanted to better their lives and show them they’re not invisible."

Students decided to take up a collection of items they thought could be used, including old textbooks, clothes, candy, shoes, hygiene products, first aid kits and school supplies.

Mankins required her eighth grade students to create PowerPoint presentations and signs to explain their cause to the sixth and seventh graders, who helped collect items.

A total of 5,475 items - with packaged products such as pencils counting as one item - were collected by the school. One eighth grade class, including Cassie Pixley and Joel Myers, alone collected more than 1,900 items, Mankins said.

"When I was watching and learning about it, I felt so privileged," Pixley said. "It’s not fair that I have everything I have and am safe, that I don’t have to be afraid to go to sleep at night. It made me want to do something because I don’t feel any child should have to go through that."

"They don’t really have a childhood as much as we do," Myers agreed. "Their living conditions…I just felt so bad for them."

Mankins’ husband, the children’s pastor at Van Buren First Assembly of God Church, helped connect the students with the mission group One Child Matters, which has care centers throughout Africa.

Pallets filled with collected items will be taken to load on a cargo ship in Louisiana, which will travel to Africa once full. The items will be distributed through the One Child Matters care centers.

While the unit on child soldiers has been taught for several years, Mankins said this is the first time the students reacted by being proactive and organizing a collection drive.

"We started talking about what if it happened to us," Burris said. "What if we were child soldiers. We’d want someone to help. We wouldn’t want to be ignored."

"I try to imagine what it would be like," Hanna said. "I’d want someone to help out, too. A lot of people don’t really care about things like this, but some people do. I’m one of those people."