Favian Cortina had nervous jitters Monday morning as he sat in the multipurpose room at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley.
"I just want to get it over with," he said sheepishly.
The high school senior wasn't waiting to take a biology or English exam. He was about to donate a pint of blood.
Polytechnic High turned the auditorium into a blood bank for the UCLA Blood and Platelet Center on Monday. Fifteen donor chairs and several interview stations lined the room. In the waiting area, students munched on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They cheered one another on, giggled before it was their turn to donate and asked each other, "Are you nervous?"
But despite any jitters, they said the donation was worth it. Sure, they got out of class and received a free movie ticket, but for most of them, it was more than that.
"I feel like I'm saving someone's life," said Miriam Garcia, 17.
"My blood is going to help someone who needs it," said Marta Rivera, 18.
The school, which has about 4,300 students, donates more blood than any other in Los Angeles County, according to Deborah Alter, the community liaison for the UCLA Blood and Platelet Center.
"The school is just amazing," Alter said as she stood near the check-in table. "I can't explain it. I work with so many schools ... no matter what they do ... they get very excited about it."
School administrators and teachers attribute the generosity to their students' compassion for those in need. Even though most of the students themselves come from low-income households, they raise thousands of dollars for charity throughout the year.
"It's really satisfying as an administrator, as well as for the students of the school," said Gerardo Loera, an assistant principal.
Polytechnic High students organize blood drives five times a year, giving each student two opportunities to donate. Unlike schools that have traditional calendar years, Polytechnic's school year is divided into thirds to accommodate its large population. Linda Goss, the UCLA center's outreach and recruitment coordinator, said approximately 40 schools and 110 businesses in Los Angeles County participate in the blood drives each year.
Typically, a school visit brings in 110 to 160 pints of blood for the center. On Monday, the center collected 164 pints (each person gives one pint) from Polytechnic. More students wanted to give, but about a quarter were turned away because they did not meet donor requirements: Donors must be at least 17, weigh at least 102 pounds, have adequate iron levels and be in good health.
Alter said the center is always in need of blood, so the students' donations are crucial. "We never have enough blood," she said.
"It goes like that," she added, snapping her fingers.
The blood is tested for a variety of factors and can be used within days for such things as blood transfusions and trauma treatment.
"We are trying to create a culture of caring," said teacher Brian LeClair, who for the last 12 years has advised the Leadership Class, which organizes the event. "When we don't provide these kids opportunities to develop caring skills, we have failed them."
Junior Julissa Delgado, a student in LeClair's Leadership Class, said she realized the importance of donating after her 5-year-old brother was in a car accident and underwent a blood transfusion. About two months later, her mother also underwent a transfusion.
"If it wasn't for the transfusion, she wouldn't have survived," said Julissa, who is 17. "Ever since then, I've wanted to donate."
Julissa was one of 30 organizers who telephoned about 500 students last week, urging them to sign up.
LeClair said the students' willingness to volunteer for those in need extends beyond blood drives. Students and staff raised more than $30,000 for Christmas toys for children last year and gave 30 area families gift cards for Thanksgiving dinners. The sophomore class is now organizing a jog-a-thon to sponsor a battered women's shelter.
"So many of the kids know what less is. They know what it's like to not have," LeClair said. "There is a natural degree of empathy that we find in our students that I find inspiring."
Favian Cortina was just happy that he turned 17 before Monday's drive. At last November's event, he wasn't old enough to donate. But on Monday, his desire was fulfilled, his jitters gone.
"I feel good," he said after the needle was removed and his arm bandaged. "I feel like I could do it again."