MORTON — Morton Junior High School's nearly 500 seventh- and eighth-grade students will be going to work Oct. 3.

That's the date of the school's fifth annual Help-a-Thon, a day of volunteer community service in Morton that also serves as the lone fundraiser for the school's Parent Teacher Organization, eliminating the need to sell chocolates or magazines and go back to parents and community members for donations for other causes during the school year.

"Besides raising money, the goal of the Help-a-Thon is to teach our kids about the importance of community service, and the fact that it's something they can do the rest of their lives," said sixth-year junior high Principal Lee Hoffman, who came up with the idea for the Help-a-Thon and arranges work sites.

There's no doubt the raising money part of the program has been a success.

The Help-a-Thon generated more than $100,000 in its first four years from pledges obtained by students for their volunteer work.

More than $30,000 was raised each of the past two years after $23,000 in the first year and $27,000 in the second year.

Students typically work at the Morton Police Station, Morton Fire Station, Morton Public Library, Apostolic Christian Restmor, Villas of Hollybrook, Midwest Food Bank, Community Harvest, Goodwill and Mission Mart, in Morton Park District parks and Morton School District elementary schools and at residences.

In many places, they also receive a tour and learn about the facility.

About 20 to 25 students go to each work site. They do chores such as cleanup and landscaping work, pack food, unpack clothes, help teachers and talk with nursing home residents.

Raising $200 or more gives a student an opportunity for a field trip and another service project at places like the Dream Center, Rescue Mission, Children's Home, EPIC, Crittenton Center and OSF HealthCare Children's Hospital of Illinois in Peoria and the Illinois National Guard armory in Bartonville.

The field trip day includes lunch.

Last year about 90 students reached the $200 benchmark and about a dozen went to each field trip location. This year's field trip date is Oct. 24.

"I went to the Dream Center last year with the kids," Hoffman said. "They gave us about a 45-minute tour. I learned a ton about all the services the Dream Center provides."

Students do not have to collect money to participate in the Help-a-Thon and everyone receives a T-shirt.

The junior high choir has jumped on board the program in recent years instead of selling candles, Hoffman said. Students who hit the $200 Help-a-Thon fundraising mark get to go on the choir's annual field trip free of charge.

Not all the money raised in the Help-a-Thon goes to the PTO. The Morton Helping Hands fund, Children's Hospital of Illinois and American Heart Association receive a total of 10 percent of the proceeds.

The Helping Hands fund was started in 2011 by Todd and Kathryn Grimm. Under the auspices of the Morton Community Foundation, it provides money for organizations that help those most in need in Morton.

Hoffman said his idea for the Help-a-Thon had its beginnings when he was the principal at Lettie Brown Elementary School in Morton.

"The Lettie Brown PTO was selling magazines to raise money and I thought, there has to be a better way," he said.

Hoffman became principal at the junior high before he could launch a Help-a-Thon at Lettie Brown.

The junior high Help-a-Thon began in Hoffman's second year at the school, after he'd experienced a year of PTO chocolate sales.

"I talked to the PTO about my idea for the Help-a-Thon and they were on board," he said.

Hoffman said he was scared to death the first year of the Help-A-Thon.

"I was hoping we'd at least raise $10,000 and match what we did selling chocolates," he said. "To see that more than double was great."

Hoffman's Help-a-Thon idea is catching on. He knows of about four or five schools that have started the program after contacting him.

The rain date is Oct. 4 for this year's Morton Help-a-Thon. For information, call the junior high at 266-6522.

Steve Stein can be reached at 686-3114 or Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.