Evergreen Elementary School librarian Vera Hernandez was still working on the "Christmas inventory," as the East Los Angeles school calls the stuffing of canned foods into holiday gift boxes, when Olga Ochoa walk shyly into the library.
The mother of four children arrived early and was the first to choose from among 17 large cardboard boxes, each decorated with construction-paper Santas and snowmen, and brimming with canned and nonperishable food donated by students from Evergreen and its "sister school," Valentine Elementary in San Marino.
For the past 10 years, Valentine has collected food for gift baskets to help Evergreen's poorest families during the holiday season. With 980 of the school's 1,120 students on full government subsidized lunch and breakfast programs, the school is concerned that some families have trouble feeding their children during winter vacation, said principal Lupe Grajeda. "This helps the kids while they're not in school and can't get the lunches," she said.
In previous years, Valentine's donations also included toys and children's clothing.
The gifts were "very helpful," said Ochoa, who received toys along with food last year. "I didn't have any money last year to buy them toys, and I'm in the same situation this year."
Valentine did not give toys this year, but Ochoa nodded toward a pile of plastic grocery bags filled with candy and said, "That will be sufficient."
The added treats, donated by Polytechnic School in Pasadena, "is like a blessing," said Susan Hernandez, an unemployed, single mother of three Evergreen students. "All kids like candy. It's like a gift for them."
The sweets are only a small part of the holiday gift boxes. But for some of the children who will receive them, the candy will serve as their only Christmas presents this year.
And by donating the candy, the Pasadena students also gain something valuable for Christmas: a sense of giving, said Polytechnic teacher Jane Soloway. She and Evergreen teacher Melinda Holt first organized the candy donations three Halloweens ago, when Soloway realized she and other Polytechnic parents had a tremendous surplus of sweets.
Each year, the school has collected candy to give to Evergreen. Estimates of this year's donation total came to a belly-aching 13,000 pieces, Soloway said.
It's not easy to convince a 6-year-old to part with chocolate, but Caitlin Latta said she realized her donation was helping another child. "If I had a friend who couldn't have Christmas, I'd give them some presents and some cards," the freckled-faced first-grader said, packing a Nestle's Crunch bar into a donation bag in November.
The treats were sent to a storage room until Hernandez could pack the gift boxes the week before winter vacation. But until then, some of the candy was put into use in the classrooms. From the storage room boxes, M&Ms; and Skittles were singled out for teachers to help them sweeten up their lesson plan.
"If you really want to do an activity that motivates [the students], you have to buy the materials yourself," said Joanah Deiparine, a third- and fourth-grade teacher. In the two years Deiparine has taught at Evergreen, she has bought books, construction paper and candy to use in her classrooms. "It gets expensive," she said. "It's great that this was donated."
Eight-year-old Francine Sanchez agreed. She had finished counting the different colors of Skittles in the package Deiparine gave her, and she began graphing them on a piece of paper.
"This is fun," she said, "because you get to eat them after you're done."