BRIGHTON — Teenagers from Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton sat in a campus chickee on a recent Monday in December and discussed reasons why giving to others in deeds and charity is important.
“It shows leadership,” said Kaleb Doctor, 13.
“It tells people they are loved,” said Janessa Nunez, 13.
Kamani Smith, 14, and the school’s Student Council Chairwoman Alaina Sweat, 13, agreed.
“Kids are especially thankful. They don’t take anything for granted,” Alaina said.
PECS students show generosity all year long, said principal Brian Greseth, but during the holidays, from November through December, they punctuate the point with acts of kindness that come one right after the other.
“These months are pretty much a busy time for giving,” Greseth said.
A schoolwide Food for Families collection drive reaped 1,109 canned food items for Big Lake Missions Outreach in Okeechobee just in time for Thanksgiving.
The organization’s food pantry and hot food kitchen has been feeding an average 25,000 hungry and homeless people per year for the past two decades, said Mary Anne Swinford, who co-directs the charity with her husband, Bruce. She said the group distributed 920 meals to the local poor on Thanksgiving Day this year alone. On any given day, they serve between 15 and 40 meals.
“We don’t turn anyone away from the table. We learned that when we were little kids,” Maryanne Swinford said.
PECS administrative assistant Michele Thomas said the holidays are perfect for encouraging children to care for others. Children gain exposure to all sorts of community needs, including fun ways to participate, and then they are encouraged to pitch in.
“We use the time for teaching moments,” Thomas said.
On Dec. 1, the students hosted a party in the school cafeteria for foster children of Real Life Children’s Ranch, a residential group home in Okeechobee for abused and neglected children who have been removed from their parents’ care.
Greeted by PECS kids at the door, the foster children were treated to a chorus of Christmas carols sung by PECS students. Later, students shared a buffet of traditional Seminole foods that included Indian tacos.
“We played with the kids and made them feel comfortable,” Janessa said.
Soon, Santa Claus appeared to spread more joy by giving away candy canes and books that were donated by PECS children during a November book collection. Kids also received school supplies and single strands of Seminole beaded necklaces.
A few days later, PECS students donned Santa caps and joined the Top of the Lake Christmas Festival & Parade in Okeechobee. There, they rode aboard the PECS parade float waving to spectators and they walked behind the float pulling red wagons filled with more books that were handed out to children who lined the street.
“It was fun and wet and rainy and cold. It felt like winter,” said Kaleb, who is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Students.
But Kaleb said the holiday spirit actually kicked into gear during early fall when students helped fill boxes with comfort and cheer for troops overseas through the Loving Our Heroes organization.
Students met Nov. 13 to supplement care packages with magazines and letters before the organization founder Gina Buhlmaier, of Okeechobee, shipped the boxes to locations that included Iraq and Afghanistan.
Outside community events capped Dec. 10 when a handful of PECS kids manned a table at the Christmas on the Caloosahatchee event in Moore Haven, where they doled out pumpkin bread to thousands gathered at the riverside celebration.
Kaleb said the holiday events are always fun, but his most memorable moments come from showing kindness to other children who need love the most.
“Helping touches me in every way,” Kaleb said. “It feels good to give back, but there is a pain that comes with it when you’ve been there yourself and you know how it feels.”