After he was done serving himself seconds, Fernando Godenez turned left to his classmate and extended his arms out, holding the bowl of meatballs and marinara in one hand, a serving spoon in the other.
"Quieres?" the 3-year-old asked in Spanish, the physical effort a monument to his improving motor skills, a sign that he's becoming more comfortable with other kids.
"In his way, he's communicating, he's coming out of his shell," said Rashmi Kothari, one of Fernando's teachers. "To me these are little steps, but in a big way."
Some kids show progress in leaps and bounds, Kothari said, while others, like Fernando, come along in subtle ways.
Fernando is one of 72 children in a preschool literacy program at Hands Together, a Center for Children and Family in Santa Ana, the center of Orange County's Latino population.
For three hours every day, Fernando and his classmates — all between 3 and 4 years old and among the most disadvantaged in the state — improve their literacy and coordination through games, group activities and stories.
Over the school year, the students will learn to write their names, identify colors and shapes, and for the non-English speakers like Fernando, slowly pick up a second language. Once a week they check out a favorite book to read.
When Fernando first showed up, he didn't talk to anyone, Kothari said. After two months, Kothari said, Fernando was beginning to bloom.
One November morning, Fernando ran around with a spiral snake he made out of a paper plate, yelling that he was going to give it to Ms. Erica, one of the Hands Together teachers. During group time, Fernando joined in a sing-along of "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes."
"He wouldn't have done any of this when he first got here," Kothari said. "He's independent, very quiet, but very empathetic."
When asked what his favorite activity was, Fernando smiled, shrugged his shoulders and looked down: "no se," I don't know.
Then his head darted up and he turned to look behind him.
"Fernando! Hurry!" a little girl yelled to him. It was time to go out and play.
In an instant, Fernando leaped out of his chair, grabbed his paper snake and filed out to the playground with his new friends.
Through the generosity of Times readers and a match by the McCormick Foundation, nearly $450,000 was granted to local literacy programs this year as part of the Los Angeles Times Holiday Campaign.
The Holiday Campaign, part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a McCormick Foundation Fund, raises contributions to support established literacy programs run by nonprofit organizations that serve low-income children, adults and families who are reading below grade levels, at risk of illiteracy or who have limited English proficiency.
Donations are tax-deductible as permitted by law and matched at 50 cents on the dollar. Donor information is not traded or published without permission. Donate online at latimes.com/donate or by calling (800) 518-3975. All gifts will receive a written acknowledgment.