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    Students ship Christmas hope to Cambodians

    Fourth-graders are inspired by articles about a woman who recently revisited her homeland.

    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    Michael Stagg, left, and Coral Raymer help pack items for shipment to Cambodia.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000

    PALM HARBOR -- Teacher Mary Derrick's fourth-grade classroom looked a bit like Santa's workshop Wednesday, with a small group of elves merrily unpacking, sorting and repacking boxes of gifts that would make a long journey to the other side of the world.

    But the boxes marked "Sophie's Fund" weren't the traditional payload displayed on Santa's sleigh, neither would they be dropped-shipped through a chimney.

    Instead, the cartons of pain and cold remedies, personal beauty aids, cotton balls and diapers will make a 45-day journey to Cambodia via a cargo ship. They will be used to help a few of the 5-million residents of that country who suffer from poverty, starvation and disease.

    "Here's some shampoo and, ooooh, toilet paper," said pupil Coral Raymer, 9, as she emptied a box of donated toiletries.

    "Well, they'll need that too," said Tracey Alchin, a mother and school volunteer helping with the project.

    After reading and discussing two recent St. Petersburg Times stories about the life of Sophie Stagg, a 35-year-old Palm Harbor woman who returned to her native Cambodian village after 20 years, the children in Derrick's class at Sutherland Elementary School knew what they wanted to do for a Christmas project. They decided to collect needed health and beauty aids and send them to the people in rural villages near Phnom Penh.

    As of Wednesday, they had gathered hundreds of items that filled about a half-dozen large boxes, and they planned to continue collecting donated goods through Friday.

    "We were just thinking it would be a really hard life to live like that," said Marli Babin, 9.

    "The whole class feels better that we can help," said Sarah Parris, 9.

    "We're going to change peoples' lives," said Nicolas Fetter, 9.

    By Wednesday, they had collected dozens of small boxes and bags filled with hundreds of items -- cartoon character toothbrushes, small stuffed toys, adhesive bandages, and soaps and shampoos. News of their efforts had spread throughout the school and many other classrooms donated supplies to the project as well.

    The children were proud of their contributions.

    "I went to Wal-Mart and got five little toothpastes, 10 toothbrushes, a big bottle of shampoo, a five-pack of soaps, some Q-tips, and two packs of deodorant," said Matthew Allison, 9.

    Savannah Hurley, 9, said she planned to do more shopping before the Friday deadline.

    "We still need make-up and hair ties for the girls, race cars for the boys, and maybe some books but I don't know if they can read them," she said.

    The children said that they could relate to the story because of a connection with Mrs. Stagg. Her 9-year-old son, Michael, is their classmate. Michael said he had never been to Cambodia but would like to one day visit.

    "My mom said maybe next time I can go," he said. He hopes too that trip will net him a new baby sister, Samantha, whom Mrs. Stagg is trying to adopt.

    After nearly starving to death as a young girl, Sophie moved to a Red Cross refugee camp, immigrated to the United States and settled in Oklahoma with her family. She married an American, Bill Stagg, and became a U.S. citizen. He is the manager of a wholesale food company, and she is a stay-at-home mother. They have four boys and live in a six-bedroom home.

    Last year the couple established the Southeast Asian Children's Mercy Fund, a non-profit aid organization. Their goal is to take food, clothing and medical supplies to needy villages and help bring orphans from Cambodia to the United States for adoption. The organization is paying to have the goods shipped to Cambodia.

    Because of the Times articles, the organization has received an abundance of medical supplies, Mrs. Stagg said.

    "We've got 18 computers, about 250 crutches, a truck full of walkers, a crate of portable toilets and some plastic legs," she said. "We've also received nearly 700 pieces of new clothing for children and dental equipment for two offices. "This is wonderful what the children do," she said. "They are so eager to help. I wonder: Do the children here have any idea how lucky they are?"

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