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Dalai Lama contributes to students' message of hope for hospitalized children

Their book is filled with colorful artwork and includes a foreword by the spiritual leader. It is part of the peace program at 186th Street Elementary School.

July 06, 2009|Carla Rivera

One of the best-loved murals on the campus of 186th Street Elementary School in Gardena depicts some of the world's most inspirational figures -- Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez -- underlined by a question, "Are you a peacemaker?"

When artist and poet Fereidun Shokatfard visited an art show at the school where his wife, Rika, works as a special education teacher, he thought the mural would make a perfect backdrop for a book to be shared with children in hospitals around the world.

The book, "Colors of Love and Peace," is now a reality, filled with colorful artwork and messages of hope from dozens of 186th Street's student artists and authors. But the students realized more than just a dream of creating a book: In an image on the cover, they are gathered around a photograph of the Dalai Lama, the revered spiritual leader of Tibet, Nobel Peace Prize winner and promoter of interfaith harmony.

Shokatfard sent a rough outline of the book's artwork and intent to the Dalai Lama, who heads Tibet's government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, India, to ask if he would consider writing a foreword. The artist said he was shocked at the affirmative reply. It was, Shokatfard said in the book's acknowledgments, "as if a miracle had taken place."

When the official letter from the Dalai Lama's office arrived a few weeks later, postal officials were so impressed by the source and ornate seal, they placed it in a vault until Shokatfard could retrieve it, he said.

In the foreword, the Dalai Lama lauded "Colors of Love and Peace" as "a delightful and inspiring project created by young peacemakers from California."

"I am impressed by this gathering together of their colorful paintings and messages to encourage children receiving treatment in hospital," he wrote. "It's a bright, cheerful and practical expression of concern for others. What better example for all of us could there be?"

The students said they were surprised and gratified at the endorsement from such a famous figure.

"I was very surprised," said Adilen Ochoa, 11, who recently completed fifth grade. She spoke at a book launch held on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, which was attended by dozens of students, teachers and community members.

Her contribution to the book was a watercolor landscape of an ice blue lake surrounded by dark, brooding mountains and verdant trees. Under the painting, her message reads: "Hope you guys feel better and get to go back to friends."

Moises Cardoso, 9, used watercolor and crayon to draw a huge, red, lusciously ripe strawberry against a blue-and-green background. His message: "A sweet treat will bring a smile."

Another student, Sebastian Sanchez, painted a black snowman with upraised arms and spiky hair, with a simple message: "Pray for Peace."

About 5,000 copies of the book have been printed, said Marcia Sidney-Reed, the school's principal. About half of the copies will be donated to children's hospitals, while the other half will be sold. Most of the proceeds from the sales will go to charity. The book also includes a CD with songs from the International Children's Choir of Long Beach.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who spoke at the book launch, took a backpack full of books and promised to hand deliver them to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to give to a children's hospital in Washington, D.C. Sixty books were also sent to the Dalai Lama to be distributed to children's hospitals in India.

No representatives of the Dalai Lama were able to be on hand at the book launch. But he is scheduled to visit Southern California in the fall. Shokatfard said he would try to arrange a visit with the students.

The book would seem a natural outgrowth of Sidney-Reed's focus on problem-solving and respect for others, including a curriculum based on Peace Games, a national nonprofit organization that helps students create safe classrooms and spread peaceful solutions to the community.

For the last four years, the students have conducted a peace march and rally that coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January. The theme has special resonance because many of the students who attend 186th Street live in the Harbor Gateway community of Los Angeles, an area of high crime, gang activity and poverty.

About three years ago, a 14-year-old black girl, Cheryl Green, was killed in the neighborhood in what was allegedly a hate crime by members of a Latino gang. Green had formerly been a student at 186th Street School, said Sidney-Reed, who remembers having to calm students after the shooting and convince them that gang members weren't about to invade their classrooms.

Sidney-Reed said there had been a noticeable improvement in classroom behavior and fewer fights and suspensions at the school since the peace programs were introduced several years ago. The school has also improved its standardized test scores, with a recent Academic Performance Index of 813. The statewide target score is 800.

"Colors of Love and Peace," with its foreword by the Dalai Lama, is a powerful lesson for students, she said. "One little spark of peace will unite a community to make a difference in one life, one family and one community," she said.

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carla.rivera@latimes.com

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