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IMMIGRANT STUDENTS RECEIVE A GIFT FROM THE SUBURBS

Teachers at Buffalo's Grover Cleveland High School commonly see immigrant students start school with only the clothes they wore when they arrived in the United States.

That's because many of these newly arrived youngsters have lived in refugee camps along the way and have only the barest essentials.

"You see kids coming in with shorts in the morning," said Mary Jo Davila-Ryan, who teaches English as a second language at Grover Cleveland. "You ask, 'Do you have a winter coat?' 'Well, no, Miss.' "

Mindful of the school's special status as the district's center for immigrant students, Grover Cleveland teachers have for the past several years collected clothes, household necessities and other badly needed items to distribute to the families of these students at Christmas. Year-round, the school's "spare clothing" closet holds coats, shoes and other essentials so students in the direst circumstances can quietly help themselves.

This year -- at least the fifth in a row that Grover Cleveland teachers have organized the collection -- the school got some special help from children at an Amherst church.

Two classes of elementary pupils in the religious education program at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Amherst collected enough clothing, toys and other gifts for Grover Cleveland's families to literally fill a small truck. The effort was the idea of 10-year-old James Ryan, a pupil at one of the St. Gregory religious education classes and the nephew of Davila-Ryan.

The effort by so many strangers left the Grover Cleveland teachers astonished at the power of an idea. The annual Christmas gift distribution had always been a small-scale operation, a quiet effort by staff at the school, said Suki Kim, another English-as-a-second-language teacher who helped organize this year's distribution.

"But when these suburban people got involved, it became big-scale," she said.

The boost that the St. Gregory effort gave to the clothing drive enabled the Grover Cleveland teachers to deliver gift packages to at least a half-dozen families before Christmas. That meant close to 50 people got badly needed winter clothing and other items, the teachers said.

James got the idea of helping the Grover Cleveland families when his religious education class was assigned an act of community service. The pupils were responsible for creating and executing the plan. In offering his idea, James recalled a day he spent at Grover Cleveland last spring with his aunt as part of "Take Your Child to Work Day." The students welcomed him, he said, and he could not forget how many of them had so few material possessions.

Word spread through the congregation, and the St. Gregory pupils soon had enough donations to help at least a half-dozen families. The best part, James said, "was when everybody came to help." His classmates needed assistance wrapping all those presents, and they got the help they needed when dozens of parishioners turned out for a wrapping party.

Davila-Ryan and Kim say the example set by the St. Gregory children proves what they've seen all through their involvement with the annual Christmas clothing drive: The whole project works because of the help of countless people who seldom get credit.

They've learned something else from their annual forays into the city's neighborhoods, where newly arrived families are often crowded into small, bare apartments. Most Americans, Kim said, "are blessed. We have too much. People shouldn't complain. They should go out and see these people sleeping on the floor."

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