Third graders donate for Japan earthquake relief
Morning Star third graders hold a box destined for kids in Japan who were affected by the March earthquake and tsunami. From left clockwise is: Anna Sofianek, Taka Irizarry, Morgan Curran, Isaac Holmgren, Holly Angell, Addison Harrington, Carter Cape and Ava Lauman bottom right.

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To lift the spirits of Japanese children who lost homes and family members in the March earthquake and tsunami, third-graders at Bozeman's Morning Star School are sending boxes full of what every kid wants - toys.

"We did it because we knew kids in Japan were suffering from the recent tsunami," said Anna Sofianek, 9. "We wanted to try to give them a little piece of what they used to have back to them."

Instead of sending practical things like toothpaste, already supplied by shelters for quake victims, the third-graders decided to send fun things.

"We wanted to make them feel really happy," said Morgan Curran, 8.

Morning Star's third-graders succeeded in starting a charity with its own board of directors, organizing a bake sale and, with help from the baking talents of the parent advisory council, raising $1,045.

That was enough to fill 108 plastic boxes with a bunch of tiny toys - friendship bracelets, whistles, stamps, sunglasses, Old Maid card games, porcupine toys, balls, candies and stuffed animals, said Isaac Holmgren, 9.

Inside each "friendship box," the students placed a handmade card with personal messages. "Don't give up hope and stuff like that," Morgan said.

The project started when Taka Irizarry, whose grandparents live in a Tokyo suburb, went to his third-grade teacher, Lola Jeffers, and said he wanted to help.

Jeffers had visited Japan five years ago and stayed with a host teacher in Kesennuma, a community almost in the epicenter of the quake that was severely damaged.

Taka's mother, Hiroko Irizarry, who grew up in Japan, said she was able to locate Jeffers' host teacher, whose home had been flooded up to the first floor by the tsunami. The friendship boxes will be sent to the host teacher's school, Tsutani Elementary.

"It would have been easy to have a bake sale and write a check to the Red Cross," said Rob Irizarry, Taka's father and director of the product management group at RightNow Technologies. But instead, he said, Jeffers and the other third-grade teachers wanted it to be something more concrete so the kids could see the impact of what they were doing. Bozeman-based RightNow Technologies has volunteered to ship the boxes to Japan.

Students had to learn to overcome setbacks, such as a car wash fundraiser that was rained out. The bake sale, on the other hand, was a sell-out, said Holly Angell, 9.

Morning Star Principal Tom Siegel said he is proud of the kids' project because it was generated by the students themselves.

The eight students who formed the board of directors had to submit written applications for the job and be willing to meet every Monday, said Addison Harrington, 8. They had to hold respectful discussions where everyone's ideas were heard, and make decisions about how to proceed.

In addition, the students visited each third-grade class to teach their classmates about Japan and the tsunami. They created a traveling "museum" and showed pictures from Jeffers' visit to teach about Japanese culture, and followed that with video showing the tsunami's devastation, said Carter Cape, 9.

"You actually felt sad for them," Morgan said, "once you see how the whole city, it was destroyed."

Japanese children "are really, really sad right now," said Hiroko, Taka's mother. She said she hopes the boxes will help Japanese children feel supported, know that others are thinking of them, and encourage them "to look at a bright future."

Taka said he feels "very happy, because I can help somebody in Japan."

Ava Lauman, 8, said she learned a lot, like how to make new friends, and that, "We're very lucky to have all this stuff. We have a school."

"There's no greater lesson to teach kids," Siegel said, "than worldliness and empathy for people in the world."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.

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