Cops and pop tops

Joe Alves and Lt. Keith Klafke sort through the pop tabs Thursday that the Portage Police Department has so far received at the station. At left is Portage Police Chief Ken Manthey. Alves' daughter -- Mercedes, who's 5 -- is trying to break the world record for tabs collected in a year, and she's been so successful that it's creating challenges for the official count.

NOAH VERNAU/Daily Register

There’s an “unbelievable monster” in Portage. It gets bigger every day.

“I’m almost speechless,” Lt. Keith Klafke said at Portage Police Department. “I have 50,000 pop tabs sitting in front of my office door.”

Today, police from Eau Claire will deliver thousands more to officers in Portage, he added. The pop tabs are welcomed; the monster is benevolent. The pop tabs keep piling up, in many other places too, for Merecedes Alves, the 5-year-old Woodridge Primary School kindergartner who is honoring her late brother, Gunner Sweeney, in a world-record attempt.

The Alves family has until Jan. 31 to beat the record of 2.7 million pop tabs collected in one year. Mercedes will donate the tabs — her monster — to the Ronald McDonald House in Madison. She started collecting them Feb. 1, 2017.

She’s collected so many tabs that the original counting day — Jan. 15, at the police department — has been canceled. They need more volunteers. The family and police learned from Guinness Book of World Records officials that their count needs to be done by hand, not by weight.

“Our rough calculation is 2,000 man hours to count 6 million tabs,” said Police Chief Ken Manthey. His estimates seemed optimistic.

“She is way surpassing her original goal,” Mercedes’ father, Joseph Alves said. He wouldn’t spoil the total number of tabs collected so far, “but just know we’ve received way more than anticipated,” he said. They’ve received pop tabs from all over Portage, the state, the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest — even Germany.

“It spread like wildfire.”

Klafke is leading the effort to find 500 volunteers to help count the tabs, the new date set for 8 a.m. March 24. The police department no longer is a suitable venue for such a massive operation, so the count will be done at Portage High School.

If Guinness had allowed the count to occur by weight, police probably would have needed about 20 or 30 volunteers, Klafke said. For the hand count, they’ll likely need the entire gymnasium and cafeteria area.

Volunteer counters should sign up by calling the police department at 608-742-2174 or by visiting the Facebook page, “Mercedes’ Quest.”

“It’s going to take people, I can tell you that,” Klafke said. “If we can get 1,000 volunteers, that’d be even better.”

Manthey said, “It just doesn’t seem possible right now.”

Their challenges don’t end there. As Klafke sifted through a 30-page Guinness evidence guide Thursday, he noted that once the count begins, it can’t stop.

“You even need to blow a horn,” Klafke said.

Counters need to be 18 and older. They can be 16 or 17 years old, but they’d need to fill out a parental consent form. Counters can’t be related to the Alves family.

The volunteers could come from anywhere in the U.S. — something the family and police are banking on.

The world-record process is complicated enough that police and the Alves family still are ironing out what they’ll need, aside from many volunteers. They know they’ll need government witnesses to supervise the count and others who would log the totals.

Each phase of the count needs to be photographed, “and we’ll need video cameras too,” Klafke said.

Police plan to provide at least one orientation in the days prior to the official count, to keep everyone on the same page.

Bringing an official from Guinness to Portage to manage the count could be crucial in making it a success — but that costs $10,000, the family learned Thursday from Guinness.

The family has until about March 10 to raise the $10,000.

Most of the pop tabs are being kept at Ridge Motor Inn, where Joseph Alves works as manager. The family already has spent about $1,000 on 18-gallon totes to hold the tabs, he estimated.

“We need about 50 more,” Alves said of the storage containers. People who want to donate totes, available for purchase at Walmart, may contact him at 608-477-2215.

“It’s a blessing. We never thought it would get this far,” he said of the pop tops. “They’re still pouring in.”

Why she’s doing it

The Ronald McDonald House in Madison provides homes near hospitals for families with sick children. The Alves family stayed there when Mercedes’ younger brother, Dominick, was hospitalized at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, when they learned of the 2014 car accident that claimed the life of Sweeney, a Portage High School student.

Mercedes’ experience at the Ronald McDonald House has led her to collect pop tabs for the charity on several other occasions, her father said. She originally set a goal of 6,280,014 tabs — a figure that aligns with Sweeney’s birthday (June 28, 2000) and his age at the time of death (14 years old).

One million pop tabs is 625 pounds, according to Tara Hensley, house director for Ronald McDonald House Charities in Madison. The House usually gets about 40 cents per pound of pop tabs, which would equal $250 for 1 million tabs or $1,000 for 4 million tabs.

The Madison chapter typically raises about $10,000 a year in pop tab recycling.

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter