School changes 52 lives

NEWPORT BEACH — About a dozen blue balloons decorated a lone wheelchair in the middle of the flag deck Friday morning at Newport Elementary School.

Students sat in a horse-shoe shape around the chair, and parents gathered behind them to talk about not one wheelchair, but 52.

"So what does 52 wheelchairs look like?" Student Council President Barron Banta, 12, asked the audience.

Kids interspersed in the audience stood up and held identical pictures above their heads of someone in a wheelchair.

Newport Elementary presented a check for $3,084 to the Free Wheelchair Mission, an international nonprofit that provides wheelchairs to low-income people in the Third World with disabilities.

"Each of those wheelchairs will change the lives of these people," Barron, a sixth-grader, told his peers. "Fifty-two people can now work and get to school because of you."

The school raised nearly three times more than the amount of money needed for their original goal of buying 18 wheelchairs — or one from each classroom.

The students had been collecting money in their classrooms since December, competing to see who could raise the money, said Kimberle Banta, Barron's mother.

A collection was also taken during the school's holiday performance and school play, Barron said.

Lindsay Messner's third-grade class was honored during the announcement for raising the most money, said Principal Amy Nagy.

The class will receive a certificate of achievement and a popcorn party, she said.

Barron brought the idea to Newport Elementary after his grandmother, Stephanie Banta, told him about the organization.

Stephanie Banta was shopping for Christmas ornaments at Roger's Gardens in Corona Del Mar when she saw information and a video on the Free Wheelchair Mission.

When she realized that one wheelchair cost the same as her ornament, she decided to forgo the Christmas decoration and buy two wheelchairs instead, Stephanie Banta said.

When Barron heard his grandmother's story, he thought it was a good fundraising idea for the school.

Individual classrooms have raised funds for the Free Wheelchair Mission in the past, but this was the first time it was a school-wide effort, said Ashley Herron, the organization's events manager.

Herron said the original goal of 18 wheelchairs was reasonable and achievable, but the students far surpassed it.

"They blew it out of the water," she said.

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