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    Lessons in giving

    For nearly a decade, the students at Seminole High School have been pooling their resources to make the holidays happier for kids who are less fortunate.

    By LORRI HELFAND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


    SEMINOLE -- Abby Phillips was roaming the aisles in Target with her friend Kash Juneja. She had $87, and it was time to shop. She picked out an over-stuffed pillow and funky hair accessories, and then her eyes locked on a clear blue cordless telephone with caller ID.

    "That's exactly what I would want," the 17-year-old thought.

    Abby was Christmas shopping, but she wasn't shopping for friends or relatives. She was shopping for a 16-year-old girl she didn't know.

    She and her classmates at Seminole High School bought gifts for 40 homeless kids to make sure they would have a brighter Christmas.

    The school's student council organized a fundraiser through a program called the Homeless Emergency Project run by Everybody's Tabernacle church in Clearwater.

    The project shelters around 180 people and provides services to help them become self-sufficient. Seminole High has participated in the project for at least nine years, according to principal Richard Duncan.

    "It's exciting giving presents to kids who are not so fortunate," said Juneja, 17, who is senior class vice president. "They're going to make someone's day."

    Last month, Phillips and her twin sister, Aimee, who are student council co-presidents, got the ball rolling. They called the church and asked for a list of children to help out. The list included first names, ages and Christmas wish lists. One by one, 40 homeroom classes adopted children. The plan of action was to collect enough money to buy every item on each child's list.

    After a month, the classes collected $50 to $150, according to Juneja. A representative from each class hit the shopping malls and discount stores to pick up holiday goodies.

    Last Friday, student representatives headed to the church, lugging three shiny bicycles and dozens of huge bags crammed with Play-Doh, a Rainbow Princess Barbie, compact disc players, Matchbox cars and assorted clothes and toys.

    Principal Duncan said he was impressed by the students' commitment.

    "It's amazing the number of items and the expense of the items they collect," he said. "It's neat the way the kids get wrapped up in it."

    In fact, Seminole High students have a reputation for giving. Last year, assistant principal Pam Skiratko found out about a baby who needed open-heart surgery. Three math classes decided to buy gifts for the whole family for the holidays.

    Veniece Kilissanly, 18, said that she gets a thrill out of giving because she believes the children will know that others care about them. "It's such an overwhelming feeling when you can provide that," she said.

    Most of her classmates feel the same way. But Julia Stenzel, 16, admitted a few of her peers didn't have the holiday spirit.

    "In the beginning it was hard getting everyone into it," she said.

    But by last Friday, that changed. That morning, each class got a glimpse of the holiday treats they helped to provide.

    "I like the part when you hold up the gifts in front of the class and you hear "oohs' and "aahs,' " Aimee Phillips said. Everyone thinks, "Wow I'm really helping someone out.' ".

    Kelly Foco, 17, said her class really let loose. "Everyone was clapping, saying, "That's great, he's really going to like it,' " she said.

    Pat McAbee, Homeless Emergency Project program director, believes students will learn a lot from the project.

    "I think they will get a tremendous sense of giving to the community and a chance to see that these kids are like their brothers and sisters," she said.

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