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What Kids Want Is a Nice Gift for Mom

L.A. STORIES. A slice of life in Southern California.


What would you do if you had $42 to spend on Christmas presents--and you were 7 years old? A few mutant turtles--or earrings for your mother?

What if you were 9 and had $61 at your fingertips? A baby doll and carriage, perhaps? Or a set of bowls for the woman who struggles to feed and shelter you?

Christmas, it is often said, is for children. But as Robert Bilovsky stood in the vortex of a shopping frenzy swirling about his knees, he could point to hundreds of kids who think otherwise.

Bilovsky is the principal of Murchison Street Elementary School, where, since early November, students have been earning play money--in denominations of $1, $5 and $10--for good behavior and good grades.

Last Friday, 1,100 students, most of whom live in the Ramona Gardens projects, finally got their chance to spend their hard-earned money at the third annual "Christmas Store," set up in the school auditorium. And they defied conventional wisdom.

At Murchison Street Elementary School, Christmas was for mom.

Nine-year-old Alesi Santiago spent all of her $61--a good portion of it earned for exemplary homework--on a set of four ceramic bowls and a tray. The gift was for her mother, whom she described as "beautiful and kind."

"I know my mother works very hard because she's our only parent," the fourth-grader added.

She cradled the bowls as if they were crystal, wrapping them in newspaper and then carefully placing them inside a shopping bag before she returned to class.

"I like the tray because if she gets sick I can take food to her bed. In the bowls I can put a little salad and a little beans."

Before the shopping spree, some students said, they slept with the fake money under their pillows. Others crafted clever envelopes for their bundles of blue, yellow and green bills. A few of the children counted their money so often the paper looked as if it might dissolve at any moment.

Danny Diaz, 7, a second-grader, wanted jewelry for his mom. In less than two minutes--and in his estimation "a bargain at $42"--he found the perfect gift: long, dangling earrings loaded with clear plastic crystals.

"I know (she) likes jewelry," he said opening the black case and holding the earrings up to the light that filtered through an open door. "They look so pretty. I'm happy I found something nice for my mom."

The auditorium was set up to resemble a department store with appliances, a jewelry counter, knickknacks, linens, perfumes, clothing and toys. Lots of toys. But many of the children, each of whom had a frantic three minutes to shop, made a beeline for the used household goods--blenders, coffee makers, lamps, floor fans, dishes, sheets and blankets--that are missing from their homes. The items were donated by the Department of Water and Power and Murchison staff.

Other pupils searched for something a little more luxurious.

Louie Keith Jr. was concerned that he wouldn't find the right gift for his grandmother, who has raised him since infancy. As he entered the auditorium he deposited his $36 in a box and darted straight for the jewelry counter. Nothing. He picked up a crock pot at the appliance center and then returned it for a set of four drinking glasses. Then a shawl, modeled by a volunteer, caught his eye.

"What I really would like to find is a basket with soaps and perfume in it," said Louie, 9. His wish was fulfilled with a three-bar package of scented soaps wrapped in foil.

"All right! These are just like the kind rich ladies buy at Robinson's," the fourth-grader said. "It's gonna be a nice Christmas. I really believe there is a Santa Claus."

Monica Moreno spent $95 on a toy wheelbarrow for her 4-year-old brother, Richard. She had wanted to buy something for her mom, who is unemployed, "But I know she won't mind me getting my brother a gift instead.

"I'm going to wash this thing up nice," the 12-year-old added. "I'm going to make it look shiny and new and put a big red bow on it."

Christmas at the Moreno household will be lean--and the same is true for most of Monica's fellow pupils. Many of the Murchison Street children will not have Christmas trees, or even a string of lights around the living room window. There is no money for presents because there is barely enough for food and rent. Children have been told by their parents--many of them single mothers--that Santa will be skipping their homes.

"So many of these kids get nothing on Christmas Day," said kindergarten teacher Sylvia Ceballos, who has watched hundreds of children parade through her door over the last 14 years. Many of them arrive hungry or cold.

The faces of the children change, Ceballos said, but the poverty does not.

Jesus Gutierrez, a 12-year-old sixth-grader who lives with his aunt when his father is out of town, paid $162 for a statue of Jesus Christ.

"My aunt helps me out a lot with problems and stuff, so this is for her," he said. "She is like a mother to me. I know it's not a big gift, but it has meaning to me."

The meaning of Christmas.

Said Bilovsky: "A young girl told me, 'Mr. B., my mom said we're not gonna have Christmas this year.' It broke my heart."

But she didn't give up. At the Christmas Store, she used her Murchison Money to buy something for her mother: a small box of Chanel No. 5 beauty products.

"That little girl could have gotten something for herself, but she didn't," Bilovsky said. "There were two 10-year-old boys looking for teddy bears for their little sisters. There was an 8-year-old girl shopping for a coat for her brother. That's touching. That's the real meaning of Christmas."

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