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A Lesson in Kindness : Schools: Students whose classroom pet, Toby the turtle, was killed by vandals are deluged with gifts of animals and supplies from across U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Winter is upon us, but springtime has blossomed early at Western Avenue Elementary School. Less than a month after animals were tortured to death and classrooms ransacked at the South-Central Los Angeles campus, donations from sympathizers throughout the United States have created an atmosphere of hope and joy among students.

As news of the vandalism spread, dozens of calls and letters and about $300 in contributions have poured in.

And on Thursday, Mark Pessin, an aerospace manager from Hawthorne, took a few hours off work to deliver half a dozen reptiles and five fish tanks that he had collected from friends.

Children in David Whitelaw’s fifth-grade class, where Toby the turtle was mutilated and killed, screamed with delight upon seeing the new iguanas and snakes, hugging Pessin and wrestling one another to touch the animals.

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“They’re giving us all these things and they don’t even know us,” said Dwayne West, 10, smiling and holding a baby corn snake. “There are not just bad people out there. We’re not alone in this world.”

In addition to Pessin’s offerings, sympathizers have donated dozens of fish and three painted turtles--one more than 30 years old--to Whitelaw’s class. One third-grader from the San Fernando Valley gave the class a 10-gallon fish tank from his own bedroom. Another group of well-wishers sent a large gift box filled with children’s books about animals and how to care for them. There was no return address, and the enclosed letter was signed with first names only.

Others sent stuffed animals and National Geographic magazines. Hundreds of plastic building blocks arrived and were offered to a first-grade class. A ceramic turtle-angel with wings on its shell now sits on Whitelaw’s desk, courtesy of another kind stranger.

“I am one of the people out there in this big city of Los Angeles sending this gift as a sign of my feelings,” wrote one donor, identifying herself only as Rose.

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Many letter-writers noted that they live in more affluent, safer areas of Los Angeles.

“If this happened where I live,” Pessin said in an interview, “parents would get together and donate animals. This is just a little help from people who have more than others. I feel bad for the kids.”

On Thursday, the Western Avenue youngsters were feeling pretty wonderful.

Chaos reigned in Whitelaw’s fifth-grade room as children screamed and played with the new reptiles squirming and slithering across their hands. Other classes visited to share the excitement. Darneika Watson’s first-graders kept their tiny arms folded across their chests--teacher’s orders, intended to prevent the children from excitedly grabbing and hurting the animals.

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“Wow,” said Brandon Gatewood, 6, after he petted a two-foot python. “The snake feels so soft. It’s like lotion.”

Two youths, ages 15 and 16, were arrested on the day of the Oct. 22 attack.

When Pessin read a Times article about the vandalism at the school, he thought at first he would simply send a check. But as he told the story to friends and colleagues, some of them offered animals and tanks to the class. Soon he had gathered so much equipment from well-wishers that he was tripping over tanks in his living room and needed to borrow a van to haul it all down to Western Avenue.

“This is getting to be a big part of my life,” he chuckled. “But I don’t regret it. I don’t lack for things to do, but I feel that this is important.”

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Amid the excitement, Miguel Guevara, 10, remembered the reason so many people were reaching out to help. Sitting quietly at his desk while his classmates frolicked around the pets, Miguel remembered Toby.

“Toby is still in our hearts,” he said. “We’ll never forget about him.”


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