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A step beyond donating

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Villarreal is a Times staff writer.

On most weekends, the sidewalks along Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights see little early-morning foot traffic. The graffiti-stained grates securing such shoe box-sized storefronts as Molina’s Pharmacy and Rosie’s Hair and Barber aren’t lifted until midmorning -- if at all.

But Sunday was different. Shortly after 8:30 a.m., a sea of high school students sporting Vans and Converse sneakers pounded along the buckled sidewalks outside the line of shops.

Nearly 1,000 students, with support from parents and alumni, took part in St. Paul High School’s annual March for Hunger. Participants from the Roman Catholic school in Santa Fe Springs and other campuses were bused to Salazar Park, where they began a 26-mile journey to raise nearly $20,000.

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The money will be donated to the Los Angeles Catholic Worker Hospitality Kitchen, which serves the homeless on skid row. It’s the kitchen’s single largest donation each year, said Jeff Dietrich, the foundation’s co-founder and director.

Now in its 36th year, the annual walking tour of Los Angeles was founded in 1973 by former St. Paul teacher Dan Jiru. Students in his religious studies course were not convinced that poverty and hunger were critical social issues, because there were few signs of them in some of the school’s surrounding areas, including the middle-class communities of Whittier and La Mirada.

The march was designed to give students a lesson in social responsibility by providing them a firsthand look at the disparity that exists between poor and affluent neighborhoods, Jiru said.

In recent years, students, parents and faculty of Don Bosco Technical Institute, Damien High School and Ramona Convent Secondary School also have taken part in the event.

“Young people don’t have the opportunity to walk the streets of Los Angeles and see the diverse cultures that surround us and the different conditions people live in,” said Jiru, 70. “This walk provides them with that opportunity. We could simply walk around the school if we were just in it to raise the money. But this is more than that. It’s an experience that can only be appreciated by observing.”

Participants attended a 6 a.m. Mass at St. Paul before hopping on buses to Boyle Heights, walking five miles up Cesar Chavez Boulevard to Olvera Street, then up Sunset Boulevard another five miles past Elysian Park, then seven miles due west to Beverly Hills, followed by a three-mile stretch to Westwood, eventually reaching Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica in the late evening. Officers from the L.A. Police Department and the Santa Monica Police Department assisted with the daylong event.

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The annual walk has become part of the fabric of this school community and has raised more than $1 million for the soup kitchen, sponsors say.

“The walk remains important because it puts into perspective how fortunate we are,” said St. Paul senior Andrew Canales, who took pride in revealing that his feet have remained blister-free each year he has participated. “It’s hard to ignore the issue of poverty when you’re walking past people sleeping in cardboard boxes or pushing shopping carts full of their belongings.”

Each participant donated $55. Some of the money was used for bus transportation and specially designed T-shirts. The rest will be donated to L.A. Catholic Worker. Many alumni sponsored current students who could not raise the required entry donation.

“Some people said, ‘Why not do five or 10 miles?’ We found the greater the challenge, the more the students show up,” Jiru said. “And the more students that show up, the greater attention they draw to the cause.”

When Jiru retired in 2007, religious studies teacher Liz Cadwalader took on his duties as program manager.

“I had kind of thought that it would disappear when [Jiru] left the school,” said Dietrich, the foundation’s director. “I am just so elated and shocked that he has been able to create something that goes on beyond his presence at the school.”

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Daniel Martinez, 17, rolled along in a wheelchair this year, undeterred by a fractured fibula. “I think [Jiru] made something beautiful that students can take pride in,” Martinez said. “I wasn’t going to let a bum leg stop me.”

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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