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Inspired by a book, Centennial students make meals for homeless
Centennial Arts Academy fifth-grader Elizabeth Markey prepares a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as part of a class project to help feed homeless people in Gainesville. - photo by Tom Reed

What began with a class book about a young girl finding something beautiful, even in the most unlikely places, has evolved into a full-scale community service effort at Centennial Arts Academy.

Several weeks ago, fifth-graders from the elementary school read the children's book "Something Beautiful," by Sharon Wyeth, about a girl who initially notices the ugliness in her neighborhood. To create her own "something beautiful" she picks up trash and cleans around her building. An image in the book that touched many of the students was that of a homeless woman sleeping on cardboard.

"I was really upset by this," student Oliver Ceska said as he studied the picture Friday.

Some of the students were surprised to learn that homelessness existed in their own city, and as a class, they began to take steps to aid those less fortunate.

With help from their parents and teacher Dallas Thompson, they create meals to donate to the nonprofits Good News at Noon and Under the Bridge Ministry.

Under the Bridge delivers the lunches to people dealing with homelessness who live just below the Queen City Parkway bridge in Gainesville.

To date, the kids have fashioned 170 lunches filled with items donated from parents, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato chips. They also came up with unique drawings to decorate each of the paper bags to help uplift the recipients' spirits.

On Friday, Thompson's class was busy making 20 more meals for the organizations, which is usually a once-a-month project, Thompson said. With gloved hands, the kids carefully prepared Rice Krispy treats, trail mix and sandwiches.

Across the room, 10-year-old Marlee Quigley-Jones was drawing flowers on the bags, while Georgia Tran, 10, scrawled "Happy Thanksgiving" in crayon.

"It makes me feel good inside. When they get a sandwich, it's a gift because they don't always get a meal," Tran said.

Ceska said he tries to look at it from the recipients' perspective as well.

"I feel like if I was homeless, I would really like this. It would give me spirit," he said.

The project was inspired by Thompson after the class, being moved by the book, showed an interest in helping others.

She pitched the lunch idea to parents in an e-mail and said she had a number of responses within 15 minutes. "Without the support of parents, we couldn't do this," she said.

The teacher also is incorporating her project into her lesson plan. The students are writing essays and watching videos on the topic of homelessness. She said the project is promoting a spirit of service for their community.

"We do a great job of painting Gainesville as a beautiful place to be, and it is. But for children, the negative aspects are not always apparent. They're at the age where they're learning the way the world is, and I think it's good to be exposed to the not so pretty side and to be a part of that change."

The project will continue for the rest of the school year. The fifth-graders also will be collecting jackets to help people through the tough winter months.

Just as the child in "Something Beautiful" discovered the beauty around her, Thompson hopes her students will see that as well, and continue to help those in need in the future.

"I hope they see the beauty in themselves and in helping others," she said.