Call it the power of the penguin.
In the past academic year, local theater students donated $75,000 to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS — more than any other educational group in the country, according to the New York-based charity.
"That blows my mind," said Sandra Rivas-Cole, who teaches art at Lake Howell High School near Winter Park.
Most of that money was raised through the sale of $1 buttons designed by Rivas-Cole. The 2-inch discs have a pin on the back, while the front features a cartoon penguin, often in the guise of a notable pop-culture character. Think Harry Potter or Princess Leia.
"It's amazing to see what a phenomenon the students have created," said Sarah Mitchel, director of education and outreach for Broadway Cares. "To see it pay off in such a large amount for these students going above and beyond, I think, is beyond valuable. Their work makes such a difference."
Broadway Cares donates $14 million each year to a wide range of health and human-service agencies, including several in Central Florida.
The students who make and sell the buttons are members of Florida Thespians, a statewide theater-education organization that holds interscholastic competitions for budding actors, directors, playwrights, designers and the like.
Sold at statewide Thespians events, the hot-selling buttons are made at Lake Howell High. Thus, the penguin: The flightless bird is the mascot of the school's theater company.
Besides, "people just like penguins," said James Brendlinger, chair of Lake Howell's arts and communications department. He hatched the idea in 2011 and, with a few other small fundraisers, brought in $5,000. Each year since, that figure has increased — $20,000 in 2012, $45,000 by 2014 and June's record-setting $75,000.
More than 12,000 students take part in Thespians, including about 4,000 middle schoolers as Junior Thespians. In the past five years, more than 200,000 buttons have been distributed.
"I've seen them at Disney, I've seen them on Park Avenue" in Winter Park, Rivas-Cole said. "They're fun."
The concept has similarities to Walt Disney World's pin trading. Buttons come in themed series, such as superheroes or Broadway shows. Some "mystery buttons," among the most popular, earn the purchaser a prize.
The scene at the sales table can be frantic, said Nacia Goldberg, the 2015-2016 student button coordinator.
"Once people start realizing 'The buttons are here,' they come rushing over," said Goldberg, a Lake Howell graduate who just started at Florida State University. "People will put down $20 and pick 20 at random. On the last day, we were shouting 'Five buttons left!' and people were throwing their dollars."
The buttons cost just five cents to make, said Brendlinger, who teaches theater and chairs the Junior Thespians program. About 50 Lake Howell students work throughout the school year, assembling the buttons on a simple machine. They receive community service credits, though that isn't the only motivation.
"This is an achievement we are proud of," said Goldberg, of Casselberry. "When they announce the final [amount raised], everybody feels a sense of community, like 'Wow, I helped with that.'"
After the Pulse nightclub massacre in June, free commemorative buttons were handed out at memorial events — the only time they have been used outside of Broadway Cares fundraising.
Florida Thespians began donating to Broadway Cares in 2006. "This was started by theater professionals we want our students to emulate," Brendlinger said. "It's a perfect fit."
Local organizations supported by the charity are Central Florida Haven of Hope Ministries in Orlando, the Hope and Help Center of Central Florida in Winter Park and Diggs Miracle Care of Volusia/Flagler in Daytona Beach.
"We're hoping to create the next generation of Broadway Cares," Mitchel said. "It's inspiring to watch [the students] use their love of theater to make a difference in people's lives."
The record-setting donation has only spurred Brendlinger to set his sights higher.
"Our goal for this year is to make $80,000," he said. "We keep amping up the goal, and the kids keep leaping over it."