Youngsters send Valentine hopes

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As Elena Ortiz, 5, described the newspaper photos of the recent disastrous tsunami, her classmates at the South Routt Early Learning Center listened with interest.

She pointed to a photo of a wave coming up to the trees and described how it could take away a whole city.

"That's a big wave, isn't it?" center director Cindy Ashley asked.

"Yeahhhh," the class responded.

Elena showed another photo in which people were living under tarps on dirt floors.

"Do you think it'd be fun to live in something like that, where you had just dirt floors?" Ashley asked the class.

"Nooo," they replied.

They talked about how people could only eat fish because other food sources were gone.

"Do you think you'd get tired of eating fish if you had it every day?" Ashley asked.

"Yeahhhh," the class said.

"Fish sticks are my favorite," one boy said.

And then, Ashley asked the class the big question of the day: "How can we help?"

"Make valentines," one girl shouted.

On Wednesday, the South Routt Early Learning Center students made 20 large valentines -- cardboard hearts that the children painted and decorated with glitter, handprints and stamps.

On each heart, students wrote a "hope" for the people who were devastated by the tsunami. Hopes included that the victims would be able to build new homes, have food and water, or buy new toys.

On Thursday, the class split into groups and delivered the hearts to local businesses, which bought them for a $10 donation each and displayed the hearts in their stores.

By the end of the week, the project had raised $180, with two more hearts to sell, for an expected total of $200. The class will donate the funds to the Save the Children organization.

The goal of the project was not to raise a lot of money, Ashley said, but rather to help the students develop an interest in other people's needs and wants.

The lesson on the tsunami was general, she said, and some of the more difficult details -- the death toll, the complete devastation -- were not included. Instead, the class talked about a wave as big as a town that could take away people's homes and food.

"It's good to kind of increase their awareness, but without making it a scary thing for them," Ashley said.

For many of the children, waves, storms and other natural events are fascinating, and a lesson about a huge wave fit in well with the current unit on oceans.

"I think it's a lesson (in which) we try to help them realize that it's good to help others and to do nice things for other people outside of yourself, which is hard for a preschooler, because the world kind of revolves around them," Ashley said.

It's not the first time the students have done something for others. During Thanksgiving, they made a box to send to soldiers in Iraq.

Elena's mother, Colleen Ortiz, helped dream up the tsunami valentines after an experience within their own family.

The family had planned a celebration for Elena's birthday, but she got sick, so her birthday party had to be smaller than planned, which was disappointing to her, Colleen said.

Colleen then told Elena that some children don't even receive presents, and Elena asked "Why?" Colleen explained that their parents may not have money or may not be able to buy the gifts.

"That's when her eyes just got really huge," Colleen said. "I thought, 'We really haven't been focusing on how much we really have.'"

On Wednesday, while the students carefully painted the huge hearts with purple and pink and red and white, they talked about how they hoped the hearts would help.

"I hope that they can buy new water and food and toys and stuffed animals, and buy, like, a new baby doll friend," said Greta Thurston, 4.

Dalton Ray, 5, said he hoped that the victims could "get more food and clothes."

Elena said that she felt sad when she first learned about the tsunami and that she wanted to help.

"They didn't have anything, and I wanted to help them because it would be nice," she said. She said she hoped the class donation would help victims buy new toys.

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