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SANDY BANKS

Two Schools Get Lessons in Sharing

October 24, 2000|SANDY BANKS

Eyes wide as saucers, they climbed down from the buses parked outside of Chaminade Middle School. It wasn't just the majesty of the tree-lined Chatsworth campus that captivated them, or the throngs of students and teachers waiting to greet them.

It was the grass--acres and acres of lush, green lawn, stretching as far back as they could see.

For the children from St. Turibius, a tiny Catholic school on the gritty outskirts of downtown L.A., it must have seemed like a field of dreams, made real.

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With its barred windows and barbed-wire fencing, St. Turibius blends right in with the aging phalanx of factories around it. You could pass through this industrial area and never even notice the tiny Catholic school.

Its playground is little more than crumbling asphalt. There is not a patch of grass in sight, not on the campus or along the neighboring streets. There are no homes nearby, just the freeway bordering the school's front gate and, everywhere you look, the factories.

The students rarely complain. Those factories employ their mothers and fathers, allowing them to scrape together enough to pay the $160 it costs each month to send a child to St. Turibius.

"Most of them are raising several children on jobs that pay barely minimum wage," says the school principal, Sister Jeanmarie Chavez. "But they sacrifice to send their children here."

If St. Turibius is one of the city's least affluent Catholic schools, Chaminade would be considered one of its most. Its middle school tuition is more than four times that of St. Turibius. Chaminade students are the children of doctors and lawyers, schoolteachers and engineers.

A few years ago, a request by a nun led Chaminade to adopt St. Turibius. Its fund-raisers, book drive and school supply campaign provided its inner-city partner with classroom supplies, computers, VCRs and 4,000 books for the campus library.

Then Chaminade students began visiting the campus to read to St. Turibius kindergartners.

"The next thing we knew, our students were asking, 'Why can't we bring them here?' " said Kim Kurzeka, Chaminade's director of campus ministry. "Some of the kids there had told us they had never played on grass."

That hit the Chaminade students hard. Their neighborhoods are dotted with parks, their homes surrounded by manicured lawns, their 16-acre campus seems to burst with green. St. Turibius' students, Sister Jeanmarie explained, "live mostly in apartments, in neighborhoods where it would be too dangerous to play outside, even if they had a grassy place to play."

So Chaminade hired buses, ordered T-shirts, bought hot dogs and popcorn and lemonade, and brought the 300 students from St. Turibius out to their campus last week, for a day of food and fun and friendship . . . and a chance to run wild on green grass.

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St. Turibius is not poor, Sister Jeanmarie Chavez will tell you. "I wouldn't change it for the world. Our parents are wonderful, hard-working people. . . . Our children know we do the best we can."

Still, there are things the students need--a wish list Chavez offered up hesitantly, under gentle prodding from Chaminade Principal Christine Hunter:

A set of encyclopedias for the seventh grade. A few balls for soccer and kickball games, to replace those punctured by barbed-wire fences or devoured by the adjacent freeway. Uniforms for the girls' new volleyball team so they don't have to play in their P.E. clothes against other, more privileged teams.

"I know there's more we need," Chavez says, "but when I try to come up with something, all I can think of is how much [Chaminade] has already given us."

And she doesn't mean the computers or the TVs. She's talking about the day the two schools shared, and the way it made her students and teachers feel.

"My kids couldn't believe it. They talk about it like it was a dream . . . all the food, the popcorn machine, the bagels and cream cheese. My teachers can't get over how much trouble they'd gone to, with all the games, the activities.

"The kids can't stop talking about the welcome they received, how nice everyone was, all the new friends they made. We all left there feeling so loved."

She hopes Chaminade's students know how much their kindness meant to her kids. When she rose to thank them at the end of the day, the words stuck in her throat. She was crying so hard she couldn't speak.

Chaminade's Kurzeka says no thanks are needed. A gift was not just given, but received.

"Our kids got a real appreciation for how lucky they are to have so much, when other kids just like them have so little," she said.

"We've never done this before, so we didn't know what to expect. But, you know, we're a Catholic school. We talk about having a relationship with God. Well, this is it. And I don't think you could have written it in any textbook."

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