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Requiring community service as a condition for high school graduation has become somewhat of a national priority, but many city schoolchildren are getting an early start on the idea.

They're giving back to their community, especially during this holiday season.

Traditional classroom gift exchanges have, in many instances, been replaced by collections for needy families and activities aimed at making the holidays more enjoyable for needy children, local seniors and shut-ins.

"I haven't heard of any gift exchanges (this year)," said Niagara Street Elementary School principal Marilyn Lojek.

"That's not a common thing anymore."

Instead, students from kindergarten on up are crafting handmade cards and ornaments for those without families or friends; decorating trees and donating gifts for needy families; and collecting money to assist area charitable efforts.

"Our whole theme is 'Gaskill gives back to the community,' " said Gaskill Middle School principal Gary Myers, whose students recently collected 1,500 non-perishable food items to benefit the Salvation Army Food Drive.

"We're trying to instill in them that it is nice to do something for others," said Niagara Street fifth-grade teacher Chris Calarco. "We're trying to teach them to do something for community service."

The idea is to show thanks for one's good fortune by helping others who are less fortunate, she said, to demonstrate that in giving, we receive.

That spirit of community mindedness paid off for Gaskill students last week when TAM Ceramics -- one of the school's Adopt-A-School partners -- made a "substantial" donation to ensure that the school Christmas concert could go on as scheduled.

Myers explained that numerous musical instruments were stolen in a break-in at the school.

When TAM officials learned of the incident, "they immediately replaced it all so our Christmas concert could go on," Myers said.

TAM Vice President for Finance Bill Hamilton said that the company simply wanted to help out.

"These are kids who don't have the greatest opportunities," he said.

But "they are very accomplished musicians and entertainers. They have taken something to new heights, they've taken their talents a long way.

"We wanted to help out because we really believe in (the school) and what they're doing for the kids."

For the most part, however, community service efforts are performed without any reciprocity in mind.

Ms. Calarco's students handmade 240 cards to brighten the holidays for residents of one local senior housing complex.

Members of the LaSalle Senior High School Honor Society collected toy donations and raised money to help needy families within the district.

The list goes on and on.

"The idea is that (the children) have more than enough themselves, and they have to learn the idea of giving to those who don't," said Jeannine Fortunate, principal of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School.

"It seems this year almost all our classes went that route" of replacing a classroom gift exchange with supplying gifts for the needy.

In some classes, children were given the name and age of a child from a needy home.

That way, they could feel "some connection to the child, like they were buying for someone" instead of a faceless, nameless individual, Mrs. Fortunate said.

Students don't seem to mind giving up a gift for themselves, she said, "because they know it's going to a child who wouldn't be getting any gifts at Christmas otherwise."