It started with a science class three years ago.
Allison Stebbins, who teaches gifted support classes, was instructing fifth-graders at Haine Middle School on groundwater contamination and its effects on the environment when the students piped up. Just learning about water conservation wasn't enough for them. They wanted to help.
"It happened really naturally," Stebbins said. "I didn't plant the seed, but it grew anyway. It was just this really cool, magical thing that happened."
Thus began the school's rain barrel project for fifth-grade gifted students.
Encouraged by her conservationists-in-training, Stebbins contacted Lorin Meeder, Cranberry Township's environmental programs coordinator. He suggested the children learn about rain barrels, which can be used to reduce runoff and protect water quality.
After discussing it with Meeder, the students -- who dubbed themselves The Rainkeepers -- obtained permission from the township board of supervisors to present a rain barrel education class at the municipal center. Each person who completed the class would walk away with their own rain barrel.
But getting those rain barrels to the public? That wasn't so easy. As it turns out, rain barrels, at roughly $100 apiece, are rather expensive.
Meeder said the students held a basket raffle fundraiser and a coin drive at the middle school to raise money for the barrels. Eventually, they raised more than $3,600, which they used to to purchase 30 rain barrels for community members.
In March 2008, the students held their first class at the municipal center. It was a hit. Stebbins said the students adored teaching adults about water conservation and giving out the rain barrels later.
"It was a nice closure seeing the rain barrels transported to a person and for them to see the impact they had," Stebbins said.
That was three years ago. Today, the program is such a success that the Rainkeepers no longer worry about raising money to purchase barrels. The school recently received a $3,700 grant after Meeder submitted a successful application to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
In addition, Home Depot is donating 25 rain barrels to the project. The Rainkeepers also were recently chosen as one of four winners of the 2010 Youth Awards Contest sponsored by the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors. With that award came $500, to be used to educate residents about water conservation and rain barrel usage.
Last week, township supervisors and Meeder presented last year's Rainkeepers -- now in sixth grade -- with a certificate of recognition for winning the award. The students were happy to show off their knowledge of water conversation.
Jack Nickel said he occasionally used to litter but quit after learning how flooding can push garbage into sewer systems.
"I learned from my mistakes," he said.
"I really enjoyed learning about conservation and sharing that knowledge with the public," added classmate Kyle Cindrich.
This year's crop of fifth-grade Rainkeepers will resume the rain barrel program when they return to classes after the holiday break. Thanks to the grant and the award, Stebbins said, the newest Rainkeepers will have enough money to hold two rain barrel education classes in the spring.
Now moving into its fourth year, the rain barrel project is highly anticipated by students in the gifted program.
"They are very excited to get started," Stebbins said.
And if this year's Rainkeepers need a little advice, they can always lean on their friends in the sixth grade, who by now are experienced conservationists. Just ask sixth-grader Daniel Popp.
"We're veterans," he said.