A group of Le Sueur County residents pulled up to the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester with buckets full of pop tabs, about 1.1 million of them.

“You would have thought we brought them a brand new car,” said Teresa Collins of the greeting they received.

The group, which goes by Kans for Kids — Collins and her son, Matt Collins; along with Earl Rientz; Dayton Ely; Fr. George Grafsky, of St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Le Sueur; Pastor David Aaker, of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Le Center; and Le Sueur County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Struckman — gave the tabs to the Ronald McDonald House, and were greeted not just with with smiles. A few were so excited about the delivery that they started to dance.

But the group was not only there to donate tabs — they stayed to read, create projects, and give a day of joy to ill children.

“To see something like this, it warms the hearts of all … it is very uplifting,” said Maggie Schoepski, community development director at the Ronald McDonald House.

Kans for Kids, which has grown over the last few years, was put into motion when Matt Collins fell ill.

A senior at Le Center High School, Matt was in the middle of basketball season when he became ill with an upper respiratory infection and bronchitis. After four doctor visits, blood was drawn on Feb. 19, 2009, and Matt was referred to a hematologist That same evening Matt was admitted into Methodist Hospital in Rochester. His blood work was showing abnormal levels and it was determined that Matt had Pre-B Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

Matt and Teresa Collins spent about nine months living at the Ronald McDonald House, a home for seriously ill children. The house allows families to stay together their while their child is undergoing treatment at nearby hospitals. The home is also a place where families and children can share their experiences with others going through a similar situation.

Struckman’s son Dustin was on the football team with Matt, and would visit him. Sometimes Matt would be so sick that he couldn’t move to see Dustin, but he knew he was there.

“[Matt] couldn’t turn his head to see (Dustin), but he would say, ‘I smell a lineman,’” said Struckman of the visits.

It was 2011 when Struckman and Grafsky went to the Ronald McDonald House with pop tabs for the first time. They brought 5,000 tabs, along with some books and some toys. They stayed for a while to read to the kids and it was almost too much for the two of them to handle.

“It was very difficult for me, it was emotionally draining,” said Struckman. “I told Fr. George that I don’t think I can do this again.”

“It was hard to meet these kids who had tumors, cancer, and had pins sticking out of their knees,” said Grafsky. “It was very hard, but it was a rewarding time. We gave them a chance to smile.”

The visit took its toll on Struckman, and he vowed that he would not return because he couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to the sick kids.

Later in the year, Struckman was approached by Rientz and Ely, who, seeing the value of Ronald McDonald House firsthand and how it helped Matt and Theresa Collins, wanted to give back on the Collinses behalf.

Soon they were placing three trailers throughout Le Sueur County where residents could drop off empty aluminum cans. The group pulled the tabs from the cans and crushed the cans manually, which was a slow process. Behind the scenes the group works tirelessly, Ely gets in early to make coffee and pull tabs, and Joe Herbert — ‘the fastest gun in the west’ — crushes the cans with great speed.

In 2012, the group collected 300,000 tabs, and returned once again to the Ronald McDonald House.

Struckman, who broke his vow and returned to the house, made a connection with a sick child. The boy recently had brain surgery, and they were told that he likely lost the use of one of his arms. Struckman handed the boy a toy tractor and he reached out with both arms.

“I had [Grafsky] ride with Pastor Aaker on the way back,” said Struckman, the sheriff’s deputy. “I cried in that car.”

The movement to collect cans and pop tabs has continued to grow. Struckman’s D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) classes, local churches, businesses and families have contributed thousands of cans and tabs.

Teresa Collins says she often has people place bags of pop can tabs in her hand. Sometimes she will come home to find a can filled with tabs on her doorstep. Kans for Kids’ goal for this year was to collect 500,000 tabs – they collected 1.1 million.

“I have been working here for 12 years and that is by far one of the largest [collections of tabs] I’ve seen,” said Ronald McDonald House’s Schoepski. “Good lord, how many people must have been involved in collecting the tabs.”

The group continues to collect the tabs and year after year they return to the Ronald McDonald House to visit and brighten the day of sick children. When they traveled to the house on Aug 8, Matt Collins, now in remission, was a source of inspiration for the kids there. He, along with the others involved with Kans for Kids, helped the kids build birdhouses and picture frames and paint.

“I suggested we paint [the birdhouses],” Struckman said with a laugh. “We had paint all over.”

Every year they meet a new friend, and spend their time building something together. This past trip Grafsky met a little girl from Zambia, and together they built a picture frame. He held the nail while she diligently hammered away, and together they got the job done.

“She just kept hitting it with a ‘tink, tink, tink,’” said Grafsky.

What began as a couple of people collecting pop tabs, has grown into a well-oiled machine. Each volunteer has their task, and each day they find new ways to improve the process. Rientz created a machine that rapidly crushes the can, so long-gone are the days where they would spend hours individually crushing cans.

They are even looking in to use a farm elevator to keep up with all of the cans and tabs that come in. And even though they just delivered 1.1 million tabs, they are already working toward next year’s goal – 2 million.

All of this work is being put in to pay back the house that the Collins family called home for the toughest nine months they have known. They plan to come back each year with their donations — and hopefully to put a smile on the face of a child dealing with a serious illness.

“If you can give one kid one smile,” said Rientz of the visits. “That’s enough.”

Reporter James Stitt can be reached at 931-8572 or follow him on Twitter @LCL_j_stitt.

Reporter James Stitt can be reached at 931-8572 or follow him on Twitter @LCL_j_stitt.