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Getting the REAL Spirit : High School Seniors ‘Adopt’ Needy Kids and Have a Ball

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When 18-year-old Nadine Alliman peered into the yellow school bus that pulled up to the gymnasium at Pacifica High School Wednesday morning, she saw the boy of her dreams.

“I saw him on the bus and I said, ‘I want him,’ ” Alliman said. “He’s so cute. I fell in love the moment I saw him.”

It wasn’t a star athlete or a youthful hunk that captured Alliman’s heart. It was a boy named Anthony, a doe-eyed, dark-haired 5-year-old with an infectious grin.

Anthony was one of 160 children who were adopted for the morning by 261 Pacifica seniors who participated in the school’s annual Adopt-a-Child Christmas party, a raucous, fun-filled, two-hour event in which the high school students brought gifts and candy to mostly underprivileged and mentally handicapped youngsters from two nearby elementary schools.

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The annual party, which was started seven years ago, has a dual purpose--exposing teen-agers to children less fortunate than themselves and bringing holiday joy to those who might otherwise have a not-too-merry Christmas.

On both counts, it was evident Wednesday that the party served its purpose. Pacifica seniors eagerly handed out gifts to their “adopted kids,” and the 101 kindergartners from Clinton Elementary School and the 59 children from Mendenhall Special Education School rewarded them with smiles and affection in return.

“They say some of these kids don’t even open their gifts (at the party) until Christmas because these may be the only gifts they get, and they want to share it with their parents,” Alliman said. “Look around you--you see everyone’s happy.”

Judging by the numbers of brightly wrapped packages strewn around the gymnasium floor, where teens and tykes sat in small circles, the children could have opened most of their gifts and still have had plenty left over for Christmas Day.

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Don Wise, the school’s principal, said the entire student body collected 1,004 gifts for the party. In effect, the event was the spirit of giving gone berserk.

“Every (Pacifica) student was told to bring just two gifts,” Wise said. “But one girl got 27 gifts.”

Jeff Eastin, 18, a Pacifica senior charged with entertaining a couple of Clinton boys named Danny and Tony, said he and two friends ignored Wise’s two-gift-per-child edict and brought in about 16 gifts each.

“Together, the three of us spent $140,” Eastin said. “We don’t miss it. I think it’s for a good cause. I love it.”

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The Clinton and Mendenhall kids loved it too. Whether they received inexpensive coloring books or pricey remote-controlled toy cars, they were all smiles as they raced around the gym, shooting baskets, tossing toy footballs, firing toy guns or blowing enough bubbles to make even Lawrence Welk jealous.

But it didn’t start out that way. Although most of the children smiled and waved at Santa Claus (portrayed by Pacifica activity director George Terlaak) when they first entered the gym, most coyly bowed their heads, stared at the floor or shuffled their feet when their teen-age “parents” took them by the hand and led them away to open their gifts. When the gifts were handed out, many of the children looked at them curiously, as if they couldn’t imagine that the toys and games were theirs to keep.

“This is kind of upsetting for them when they start,” said Lisa Kincaid, a teacher who brought nine preschoolers from Mendenhall. “It’s just so fun to see these high school kids working very hard to relate to these kids, and how they react when the kids finally smile or touch their arm.”

Kim Nguyen, 18, and Norma Patrinas, 17, were among the many Pacifica seniors who initially had trouble getting their adopted child to open up. Monica, 5, a Clinton student, quickly opened her gifts, looked at them, and put them back in a shopping bag without a word.

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“She’s not very excited,” Nguyen said dejectedly. “She’s putting everything in the bag like she’s ready to go home.”

But about an hour later, Monica was eagerly drawing in a coloring book and playing with a pair of toy cellular phones. Indeed, the entire gym was, despite the chilly weather outside, a warm--and chaotic--scene of teens hoisting children onto their shoulders, chasing them around the gym and hugging them as they prepared to leave.

When the party ended at 11:15 a.m., the hugs and smiles continued as the seniors walked or carried the youngsters--loaded down with stuffed animals, dolls and games--to the buses. The Pacifica students surrounded the vehicles and pressed hands and faces against the windows for a final farewell.

“I think our kids get more out of this than those kids do,” Wise said.

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