El Tejon Middle School

Students from El Tejon Middle School collect canned food items for Kern Kidsgiving.

Nathan Garcia understood how difficult it is for a child to spend time in the hospital during the holidays.

He knew firsthand because he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer while he was a student at Rosedale Middle School.

His parents brought him to school as much as possible so he could be with friends and learn as much as any seventh grader could. When his health declined, he was able to spend his days at home, surrounded by love and comfort. 

A final wish he had was to ensure that children in hospitals during the holidays received gifts and that Christmas should continue to be celebrated with them even though they couldn't be home. So, he and his parents started a toy drive.

He passed away in December 2012 before he could see children's faces light up when they received their toys, but his legacy has continued for years at Rosedale Middle School. 

When a countywide Kern Kidsgiving challenge was announced for the holiday season, Rosedale students knew exactly how they would help.

"Around the holidays we always want to continue Nathan’s wish," said Veronica Pinon, special education teacher and Student Council adviser.

It's just one of several community service projects taking place on or around Friday — or Kern Kidsgiving Day.

During the Student Leadership Conference in September — which more than 700 students representing 104 schools in Kern County attended — educators came up with a countywide challenge: have one day where students would give back to their community. 

Friday works out because it is sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas, explained Fruitvale School District Superintendent Mary Westendorf.

"Kids really see a need in their community and respond to it," said Westendorf, who also coordinated the Student Leadership Conference. "We thought it’d be nice to really coordinate our efforts into one specific day or week and highlight what kids are doing."

So far a dozen schools have submitted their projects which range from toy drives, collecting canned food or clothing items for homeless shelters and even a turkey trot. Westendorf expects more projects to come in Monday when classes resume from Thanksgiving break.

The toy drive in Garcia's memory will kick off Friday and run through Dec. 16, explained Pinon. In previous years, toys have gone to Memorial Hospital or the Ronald McDonald House.

"Some years are really big, some are small" when it comes to how many toys are collected, but Pinon said the most important aspect to it is making a child smile.

In addition, the school will put on its annual holiday coin drive. The school collects money for needy families on campus, and Student Council members buy gifts for them based on a list of needs and wants. Families also receive a gift card for groceries.

Over at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Wasco, students will be collecting canned food, toys and new or gently used clothing items for the Bakersfield Homeless Center throughout the week.

"We want to make sure our students are aware that they should always be giving, especially during these times, and advocate for those in need," explained counselor Jose Solis. 

The school decided to help the Bakersfield Homeless Center because many students in the area come from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and understand the struggles that come with being homeless or living in foster care, Solis explained. Kern Kidsgiving gives Jefferson Middle School students the opportunity to see how much community service and "paying it forward" can do for people in Bakersfield and Kern County.

"As I read through them, I’m so touched at communities where they don’t have an awful lot but they’re finding a way to give back," said Westendorf as she looked through the Kidsgiving projects.

With a few days to go before the event officially take places, many are already looking forward to other ways schools can lend a helping hand in their community next year.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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