West Middle School students band together to help Japan

DOWNEY - On a chilly Friday morning in March beneath a neon yellow sign that reads "Bracelets 4 sale 2 help Japan," four 11-year-old girls from West Middle School scramble to set up shop before throngs of middle schoolers bombard their table.The girls dump out a pile of homemade beaded bracelets and lanyards and prop open a small, tin lunch pail affixed with a piece of paper detailing the price of each bracelet. Karla Salazar, Cielo Bussello, Suzette Soto and Brittnie Sullivan are volunteers of sorts and they're trying to eat their pizza lunches as quickly as possible while also dealing with a constant stream of classmates inquiring about prices and demanding their special orders. Before long Alexandra Martinez and Jailene Lemus jog up to the table, flushed and out of breath. The girls are hungry, but decide to deal with their increasingly boisterous clients before rushing off for slices of their own. It is because of Martinez and Lemus that everyone is gathered around the table, haggling over bracelets and talking about the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan. With tech-savvy junior high students the world moves fast and news becomes old very quickly, but because of Martinez and Lemus' efforts to aid earthquake victims, students are still discussing the devastation weeks later and they're handing over their extra change or in some cases, their lunch money, for one of the girls' bracelets and a little peace of mind that they're helping in some small way. On March 12, Martinez happened to walk through the room where her dad was watching television when she saw images from Japan flashing on the screen. The crumbled buildings, flooded streets and abandoned homes made her heart sink. The next day in the school library, Lemus' friend asked her if she heard about the tsunami, explaining that soon California would be under water, too. Just a few days after the quake, the two best friends found themselves unable to sleep and were texting ideas back and forth as to how they could help. Originally, the girls decided to perform in a talent show being put on by the West Middle School chapter of After School Program Information Recreation Education (ASPIRE) and if they won, they'd donate the proceeds to Japan, but at the time that was weeks away and they wanted to do something more immediate. After brainstorming a few ideas, Martinez and Lemus approached their school's Vice Principal Mark McLaughlin and pitched him everything they had - from a bake sale to a car wash, but it was decided that the girls could make bracelets at home and sell them during snack and lunch outside McLaughlin's office in the quad. And that's where the girls and their troupe of friends have been ever since, collecting quarters from their classmates for their bracelets ranging in price from 25 to 75 cents. "I think they're doing wonderful work. They're investing a lot of their own time and money into this project and it makes us proud," McLaughlin said. "All of the students are supporting what they're doing; it's transgressing grade levels and social cliques. A sixth grade girl who's just entering middle school and an eighth grade boy who's about to enter high school couldn't have less in common, but here are these boys buying bracelets and wearing them proudly. It's been really neat to see." To get the word out on what they were doing, the girls appeared on West TV, a 10 minute program that airs during second period and features school news and student updates. The girls also sent out mass text messages to every West Middle School student they could think of and Martinez updated her status on her Facebook page encouraging her fellow classmates to make a purchase. A friend of the girls even spent $60 of her own money to have T-shirts made with slogans like, "Yes we can, help Japan," and "Lend a hand, help Japan" for everyone to wear while selling the bracelets. "It's been a lot of work, but we really wanted to do something," Lemus said. "People lost their homes and many lost their lives and it felt really important to help." The two girls enlisted the help of their friends Salazar, Bussello, Soto and Sullivan not only to sell during their breaks at school, but to actually make the bracelets. Each day the girls go home from school, do their homework, and then get to work on custom orders their classmates have placed. The seemingly endless stream of bracelets to make has also required that parents get involved, including Martinez's mother Peggy, who often has to make a stop at Michael's Arts and Crafts after a busy day at work in order to pick up more beads for her daughter. Each morning, Martinez goes to McLaughlin's office to turn in the previous day's money. On their best day the girls made $29 and they're hoping to surpass that amount soon, though there's no end goal in sight; they simply want to raise as much money as they can for the quake victims. "At first we didn't know who we were going to send the money to, so Mr. McLaughlin told us to research different organizations," Martinez said. "We decided to send the money to the Red Cross because they're helping a lot of people in Japan. Plus, my mom and sister donate blood to the Red Cross and I'm not old enough to do that yet, so this is my way of helping." At a time when kids seem more apathetic and self-involved than ever, believing that every thought that passes through their head deserves a tweet or status update, Martinez and her friends seem to be the exception to the norm. Incredibly community-orientated, both girls are in a number of clubs, including Builders Club, and participate in the Arc Walk for Independence. Both girls are also in scholarship and Lemus, a self-described nerd, has her sights set on the Ivy League and hopes to get a scholarship so as not to burden her parents with the costs of an expensive college education. At the age of 11, Martinez can't decide between USC and UCLA or whether she wants to be a teacher or a veterinarian. Both girls care deeply about their education and future and don't really consider themselves precocious. "The way we are is the way our friends are. I don't want to hang out with people who don't care; we try to avoid those kids," Martinez said. Lemus believes that more kids would help out, volunteer, and get involved if they had the proper encouragement. "I think kids care, but they're too afraid to step up and speak out because it can be scary to do that and nobody really expects them to. So, they don't do it because they're afraid and then adults think they don't care. When kids do stand up, like we're trying to do, adults seem really surprised that we have the courage." Though they seem extraordinarily mature, the pigtails and giggles and silly inside jokes remind you that at the end of the day, Lemus and Martinez are just kids doing their best to navigate a confusing world and help those they encounter along the way. The college plans and dreams of becoming lawyers and teachers seem very far away, especially when Martinez shares an actual dream she recently had. "I dreamt that Justin Bieber came to our school and he walked right up to me and bought one of our bracelets," Martinez said. "Wouldn't that be amazing if it really happened?"

********** Published: March 31, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 50