LONG BEACH — For veterans and Corona del Mar students alike, the excitement was palpable.
Middle and high school students have been putting on shows, singing carols and distributing food and presents during the holiday season for 33 years, mostly at the veterans hospital in Long Beach.
In the hospital's community room Wednesday, about 140 CdM students — in cheerleading and scouting uniforms, or wearing red and green outfits and Santa hats — joined about 200 veterans who filled the room with cacophonous noise.
"I think this is a really interesting concept," said Peter Perrone, who was decked out in a red, white and black fatigue-style Santa costume. He added that the experience helps students "understand what a vet has given up."
Lauren Stevens, 15, and Kelsey Susolik, 13, both in cheerleading uniforms, said the event allows them to give back in a unique way.
"They did so much for us; they deserve something from us," Kelsey said.
Lisa Hupp, an alumna mom, has participated in the event for 15 years.
"I think it's a highlight for them, and it's a highlight for me," she said.
About 10 years ago, one student stayed to talk with a veteran, and about six years ago a French boy read a thank-you letter for World War II veterans who saved his family in the south of France, Hupp said. One year, a German girl sang "Silent Night," accompanied by a veteran who was wheeled out for the second half of the song.
"It's just so cool. That's why I come every year," said Hupp, who brought along her neighbor Nancy Greene, a first-time volunteer.
The festivities coincided with the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many parents and school administrators said they were grateful that veterans could share their memories across several experiences in the service.
"A lot of the veterans, they look forward to this all year," said CdM Middle School Principal Guy Olguin. "It's really good to see our kids interact with a whole other generation."
Kathy Roberts, who donned purple gloves to spoon food onto veterans' plates, has been involved in the program since her son was 12. Now he's a 45-year-old teacher in Laguna Hills, and her grandchildren accompany her.
When Roberts began working with the program, about 25 students came to a much emptier room. This year's event was almost standing-room only for those who wanted to watch the performances.
Roberts said she continues to return because "more and more people can experience something wonderful" through the program.