The Portage girl collecting pop tabs in honor of her late brother is on pace to break a world record.
Since February, 5-year-old Mercedes Alves has collected about 2 million pop tabs for the Ronald McDonald House in Madison, which provides homes near hospitals for families with sick children. According to her father, Joseph Alves, the Guinness Book of World Records lists the top one-year mark in such an endeavor as 2,782,000 tabs collected.
His daughter — a kindergartner at Woodridge Primary School — has until Feb. 1 to beat it.
“That record has stood for 12 years. Nobody has been able to touch it — until now,” said Joseph Alves, a hotel manager at Ridge Motor Inn in Portage. “She could have her story in Guinness forever, and we’re hoping to get enough tabs to make it almost impossible for the record to change.”
Mercedes’ original goal of 6,280,014 tabs is a figure that aligns with her brother Gunner Sweeney’s birthday, and age at the time of his death — June 28, 2000, 14 years old. She also hopes to raise $1,026.14 in donations, a figure that stands for Oct. 26, 2014, the day Gunner died in a car accident.
Mercedes is determined to help others, her dad said.
“Even though she’s such a young child, she truly understands the meaning of what this is for, why she’s doing this for her brother,” Joseph Alves said. “She understands he’s not coming back. But the love she’s received from everyone who has helped is absolutely astounding.”
When Mercedes’ younger brother, Dominick, was hospitalized at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, the family stayed at the Ronald McDonald House. They were there when they learned of the car accident that claimed Gunner’s life. Gunner — nicknamed “GaGa” by Mercedes — was a freshman at Portage High School.
The Ronald McDonald House has remained special to the family ever since, and that won’t change in February.
“She’s told us she’ll collect tabs every year. She won’t stop,” Joseph Alves said.
Big donors to Mercedes’ cause so far include Todd Gitter, who runs the program Weekend Wish out of the Pride of America Camping Resort in Pardeeville; Duck Creek Campground in Pardeeville; and Lisa Thompson of Riley’s Bar and Grill in Portage, among others.
Riley’s and Ridge Motor Inn are the designated drop-off locations for pop tabs, which the Ronald McDonald House recycles upon donation. According to its website, RMH receives nearly $10,000 each year from recycling the aluminum tabs.
Media coverage of “Mercedes’ Quest” has connected the family with generous donors from across the state, and beyond. “Even a lady from Germany learned about our story,” Joseph Alves said. “She’s mailing 6,000 tabs.”
Mercedes’ classmates at Woodridge had collected 68,000 tabs as of late last week, according to Principal Salina Thistle. They’re collecting until Oct. 25, at which point the classroom that brings in the most tabs wins a movie showing and popcorn.
“Some kids are bringing them in by the thousands,” Thistle said. Mayor Rick Dodd plans to visit the school during a ceremony honoring Mercedes and the generosity of her classmates, Thistle added.
“Everybody is supporting Mercedes and her family,” Thistle said.
The Guinness Book of World Records recently accepted Mercedes’ application showing her intention to top the previous one-year record for pop tab collecting, according to Shauna Thayer of the Ronald McDonald House. “She’s well on her way to achieving that goal,” Thayer said.
Mercedes’ current collection weighs more than 1,400 pounds.
“From our standpoint, what’s really amazing is just how far-reaching this little girl’s goal has gone,” Thayer said. “We’ve had people call regularly and say, ‘I’ve been saving personally for a few years, and how can I get these to this little girl?’”
Joseph Alves and Thistle agreed the level of compassion Mercedes and her classmates have shown at such a young age bodes well for their future.
“I think it just helps build up the school community,” Thistle said. “It’s important to Mercedes — so it’s important to everyone.”
Joseph Alves said the family plans to keep her Facebook page “Mercedes’ Quest” up for some time so she can read the comments again when she gets older.
“The loving heart she has now, I think will take her places when she gets older,” he said. “I think she’ll be someone who helps other people as she gets older.”