About 150 Corona del Mar Middle School students got a chance to play Santa on Wednesday at the Veterans Administration in Long Beach.
They handed out gifts with hand-written cards, feasted on a donated Christmas dinner and put on a variety show in the VA's packed community room.
"It's really nice to have a chance to serve them because they served us so much," said eighth-grader Sarah Lawson.
CdM has a long-lasting relationship with the hospital, putting on the Christmas party for 34 years under the steady hands of Kathy and Jim Roberts, whose children have long since graduated.
Students try out for a variety show, decorate the community center, sing carols, dole out food on the buffet line or deliver meals to bedridden patients — all the while striking up conversation.
CdM Principal Guy Olguin only had a vague idea of the program when he took the school's helm eight years ago. It wasn't until he attended for the first time seven years back that he saw the scope of the program, which is organized by the PTA.
"It showed me how much I didn't know about my students," Olguin said. "They are just so amazingly giving."
He's been back each year since.
Hospital administrators say they often have volunteers from local schools at the medical center, but nothing is comparable to CdM's bash.
Several thousand dollars worth of food and gifts were donated by local restaurants, businesses or families, parent volunteer Shannon Eusey said.
"Everybody was more than willing to help," she said.
Richard Blovgett, a 66-year-old veteran, chatted with a group of CdM cheerleaders as he sipped his coffee.
They had just finished demonstrating a cheer for the crowd, and Blovgett, who was an elementary school principal before entering the service in 1966, was talking to them about keeping their grades up.
"I enjoy them," he said he said of the students.
Long Beach was the Blovgett's home port in the Navy, and he's been in and out of the VA there for decades, he said from his wheelchair.
His family is back East, Blovgett said, and without friends and CdM students bringing holiday spirit, he may have otherwise been alone.
"They make you feel more like Christmas," he said.