Chief Joseph Middle School students looked like a sea of pink last week when they gathered in the school gym and raised more than $4,000 for Bozeman Deaconess Hospital's Cancer Center.

The school's most recent fundraising drive boosted the total collected by CJMS students in the past five years to $20,400.

"Kids cracked open their piggy banks and deposited their dimes, nickels and quarters," Principal Diane Cashell said.

"It was just a great experience for students to know they're helping their neighbors in the community," said eighth-grader Katherine Budeski, 14.

For Chief Joseph's record of generosity, the Cancer Center has placed a plaque with the school's name on one of its exam rooms.

Chief Joseph's fundraising is really unique for kids that age, said Jo May, interim Cancer Center director.

"They can take great pride that they're donating to the Cancer Center so we can provide great care here in Bozeman," May said. "It's so important that people can sleep in their own bed at night."

Gym teacher Tina Albers was "the sparkplug" who started the cancer drive five years ago, said Brian Ayers, assistant principal. Albers told students in 2007 that both her mother and her dog had died of cancer.

The fund drive grew into a school-wide campaign, which often climaxed with student and teacher volunteers having their heads shaved.

But this year Albers was out on leave with injuries, and it wasn't clear that the fundraising would happen.

Spanish teacher Jan Krieger told students in his 1 Million Ways Club - who look for a million ways to make the world a better place - that the cancer drive might not occur unless someone picked up the ball. They agreed to take it on.

"They really got enthusiasm going from the ground up," Krieger said.

During the two-week drive, students got to wear hats to school for a $1 donation to the cause, said eighth-grade teacher Stacey Boujoukos, who worked with Krieger and sixth-grade teacher Shelley Currie on the effort.

By last Thursday, they had raised about $1,600 - far short of the $4,000 goal. The deadline was Friday morning's assembly.

"We were worried," Boujoukos said.

When the shortage was announced to students, they brought out their nickels and dimes and emptied their piggy banks.

Teachers counted coins furiously and announced the new total to the student assembly. Donations had nearly doubled to $3,100, but they were still short.

For Friday's assembly, the bleachers were packed with students, nearly all dressed in pink to represent the fight against breast cancer. Hunter Gappmayer, 14, one of the student leaders, wore pink socks, a pink shirt and spray-painted pink shoes.

"We had to figure out ways to inspire everybody," said Brigid Bradshaw, 14, a student leader. "We talked about how everybody was affected."

Students were asked to stand up if they personally knew someone with cancer, Boujoukos said. Just about everybody stood up.

May told students their money is used to help cancer patients who can't afford things like gas, food or glasses. A woman patient who was walking to the hospital for treatments only had moccasins to wear, so the center bought her new tennis shoes.

"She was so thrilled," May said.

Teacher Rick Hannula told students of terrible diseases like smallpox that have been wiped out, and urged them to be the generation that conquers cancer.

As students left the assembly, they were asked to dig into their pockets and search their lockers for spare coins to try to reach the goal.

"By 10:30, we had it," Boujoukos said.

Students had raised $4,100.

Albers, who hobbled into the assembly, said next year they'll have to raise their total to $25,000, Boujoukos said.

And after that? "We're going for $1 million."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.