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David Leech Elementary students gather after school to help Cards for Hospitalized Kids

| Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, 6:39 p.m.
Joyce Hanz | For the Tribune-Review
Santa Claus made a surprise visit to David Leech Elementary School on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, checking out the progress made on handmade cards by students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Joyce Hanz | For the Tribune-Review
Fourth-grader Zachariah Harvey of Leechburg works on his snowflake-themed card at David Leech Elementary School on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. His was one of about 200 handmade cards created by Leechburg Area School District elementary students during an after-school event.
Joyce Hanz | For the Tribune-Review
A sampling of some of the handmade cards created by Leechburg Area School District elementary students during an after-school event on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. The cards will be distributed to Cards for Hospitalized Kids, a charity based in Chicago that delivers cards to children being treated in all 50 states.

David Leech Elementary transformed its cafeteria into a makeshift studio Friday — complete with art supplies, crafts, games and snacks as more than 100 students got creative for a cause.

Students from kindergarten through sixth grades busied themselves making homemade holiday-themed cards while munching on cookies and drinking hot cocoa.

The goal? 200 cards.

The completed cards will be mailed to Cards for Hospitalized Kids, an international nonprofit organization based in Chicago that delivers handmade cards nationwide into the hands of children who are hospitalized.

The event was organized by Rebecca Crooks, a Hearing and Learning Support teacher at Leechburg Area who introduced the idea to the children in 2014.

“This is the holidays — a time for giving — and I thought it would be a good project,” Crooks said.

CFHK was founded nearly six years ago by Jen Rubino, who as a teenager underwent 20-plus surgeries. She wanted to use her extensive hospital experience to help others, she said on the CFHK website.

“Hospitalized kids often feel forgotten, sad, lonely and isolated,” Rubino wrote. At age 11, she was diagnosed with a connective tissue and bone disease. “They also miss out on many of the little things in life that most children take for granted like having lunch with friends at school or having sleepovers.”

Rubino, now 21, is a student at Georgetown University.

More than 100,000 kids in hospitals in all 50 states have received cards during CFHK's five years of operation.

Leechburg's card contribution will be packed and shipped this week by Crooks at her own expense. They will be distributed by CFHK to a yet to be determined U.S. hospital said Crooks.

CFHK delivers cards that are theme-appropriate, such as holiday cards, as well as regular supportive cards, throughout the year.

“In the past, we weren't given any information as to where the cards went,” Crooks said. Now, according to CFHK's website, Crooks said the school will be told what hospitals they went to.

Fourth-grader Zachariah Harvey chose to make a snowflake-themed card.

“I am excited to do this,” Zachariah said. “This is a respectful thing to do, helping out children.”

Dominic Adams, seated alongside his classmate, said he knows firsthand about hospitals. His younger brother had a weeklong stay in a hospital but is “OK now,” Dominic said.

“I made two cards,” he said. “These cards will make someone happy.”

Spanish teacher Tricia Shank volunteered her time — even her language skills — as cards in different languages were encouraged.

“I am impressed with the kids' sympathy,” Shank said. “They are happy to be giving.”

Santa interrupted the creativity, surprising the students with a visit and perusing the growing pile of cards, which exceeded 200.

Students from Leechburg's high school BRAVE club were on hand to help assist.

BRAVE, Behaving Responsibly And Valuing Everyone, was founded in 2013 by Leechburg Area alumnae Kristen Miskinis.

The anti-bullying club pairs more than 50 high school students with elementary students in the district to serve as mentors to the younger kids.

“Having quality relationships with young people can have such a powerful and positive effect on children and we want to spread this theme throughout the district,” said Kelly Sadler, BRAVE program advisor and high school guidance counselor. “We saw a need with this event. The time spent with the kids is what this is all about for the BRAVE peer mentors.”

BRAVE member Abby McDermott, a ninth-grader, said the younger students look up to the high school-aged kids.

“I think we provide a good influence for them,” McDermott said.

As the students prepared to go home for the weekend, Crooks gathered up the hundreds of colorful cards.

“I hope to make this an annual event,” she said.

Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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