When his teacher's aide shared that his mother was diagnosed with cancer, Woodland Intermediate School fifth-grade teacher Eric Vander Loop saw an opportunity to help, while teaching his kids about kindness to strangers.
"They really reacted in a crazy, powerful way," he says. Since then, with Vander Loop's guidance, students at the school district in Appleton, Wisconsin, have raised more than $100,000 for cancer research – an accomplishment in raising cash and instilling compassion that makes Vander Loop one of 30 winners
of PEOPLE and Major League Baseball's All-Star Teachers campaign presented by Target.
"I definitely know that I would not be the person I am today without him," says Vander Loop's former fifth-grader Annika Betz, now 17. "He doesn't just teach the material; he teaches the deeper lessons as well."
Indeed, the above-and-beyond approach defines all 30 All-Star Teacher winners, one representing each MLB team and selected by fans nationwide who cast their votes from a pool of 90 finalists.
Vander Loop, 39, represents the Milwaukee Brewers. But more than anything, he represents his students.
"I tell my kids every single year, 'I don't care how good you are at reading, writing, math, social studies, science,'" he says. "I care that you walk out that door on the last day a better person."
And they do, says Sam Burton, the former student helper who told Vander Loop's class in 2008 that his mom, Robin, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The students reacted by staging a basketball free-throw contest to raise money for research. Since then the annual effort benefitting the American Cancer Society has expanded, with fourth-graders doing canned-goods drives and high school students performing a fundraising concert.
"It's hard to keep the tears from flowing," says Burton, 24, of Menasha, Wisconsin. "It's just amazing what those kids can do, and what he does. Everything that's been done has come from him."
The theme for Vander Loop's "Unless" effort, the teacher says, is a line from Dr. Seuss's The Lorax
: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
Says Woodland principal Craig Miller: "Eric believes in education, but he believes in the whole student, and that to be a well-rounded student, the way to help them learn is to make them good people."
Adds Betz: "I wish everyone could have a teacher like him."
For more on Vander Loop and the other 29 All-Star Teachers – who will be recognized at next week's All-Star Baseball game in Minneapolis – visit allstarteachers.com
Reporting by ABBY FRANKLIN and JEFF TRUESDELL