Sept. 20, 2010 -- Fifth-grade students at an elementary school in Memphis, Tenn., are proving that words really can make a big difference.
As part of a homework assignment, schoolchildren at Sherwood Elementary were told to write letters to the heads of the largest companies in the world and ask for help for their inner-city school. The students wrote about tattered textbooks that needed replacing and a shortage of gym equipment.
Many of those CEOs read the letters, and they've responded with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of donations.
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"They had to do more than just ask for things, they had to justify and only ask for things that help the entire school," said teacher Lachell Boyd.
Just weeks after writing their first letters, the kids started receiving responses. HP sent computer equipment worth more than $100,000. A local sporting goods manufacturer donated $30,000 worth of balls, jump ropes and other supplies.
"It is so amazing to watch the children having their dreams come true," said the school's principal, Tonya Miller.
Tristan Moore wrote the CEO of Turner Construction, the company that built the new Yankee Stadium in New York; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland; and even helped with the construction of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Handwritten Message Gets Big Response
In the four-page, handwritten letter, Tristan wrote about his school's lack of a place to exercise. He enclosed photos of the dark, dank basement where he and his classmates try to play.
"The hardest part was writing, writing it neatly, because we had to make sure it was almost perfect," Tristan said. "At first, I didn't think he would respond back."
Peter Davoren, the CEO of Turner Construction, said today that he reads his own mail and was moved when Tristan's message crossed his desk.
"When I read the letter, it reminded me of the fact that I have a fifth grader of my own, named Thomas," Davoren said, complimenting Tristan's penmanship. "It was very articulate, it was written very, very well."
"It was interesting that he didn't say, 'We want you to do the following,'" Davoren added. "He requested in the letter, 'Is there anything you can do to help us facilitate some sort of exercise equipment or something like that.'"
Company Donates a Playground In Response to Student's Letter
Now, Turner Construction is building the school's playground at a cost of $50,000, and it will be ready by Christmas of this year.
"I felt amazed that a guy, a guy who is the leader of a major company would respond back to my letter," Tristan said.
"We thought it was incumbent upon us to try and help this one school that was reaching out for help," said Davoren. "We thought it was really important to do that on a small scale -- it would have just as much impact as the scale of Yankee Stadium."
Student: Letters "Set Off Something In Their Hearts"
11-year-old Isaac Ramirez wrote to the Follett Corporation, a large publisher of textbooks.
"Unfortunately, most of the books in my school's library are falling apart," he wrote. "The students in my school are in need of your help."
Follett responded with a shipment of new science books for the library, worth $2,000.
"I walked in the library and I saw so many books just stacked up on one big table and I was really astonished," Ramirez said. "I checked them out the first day they went in."
"A kid actually has the power not because they're little but because they also have the wisdom to do things," Ramirez said.
Each student has their own way to explain the influence of their letters.
"I guess it just touched someone and they gave me the money," said Jesse Snow, whose note received a response with a $400 check attached. "I think it just set off something in their hearts."