Instead of receiving gifts that would make themselves happy, 11 Encinitas students raised nearly $1,000 to put smiles on other children's faces this holiday season.
The group of fifth and sixth graders from Claire Killeen's class at Encinitas Ranch Academy raised $960 in December for Operation Smile, a nonprofit that provides surgical care for children born with a cleft lip or cleft palate.
The fundraiser, held Nov. 27 to Dec. 21, was part of the school's annual Seasons of Giving event, in which every class took on a charity project to better the lives of others.
Killeen said the school began the Seasons of Giving event four years ago because the teachers wanted the children to learn about helping others.
"We were realizing that when December came, a lot of classes were having gift exchanges, and it was very get, get, get," she said. "We were all kind of disgusted with the attitude and decided to change it."
Other classes at Encinitas Ranch Academy this year participated in projects like writing letters to veterans, collecting clothing for the homeless, volunteering at Rancho Coastal Humane Society and gathering Walmart gift cards for a community in Texas that was devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
In the past, Killeen's class collected tuna fish cans and peanut butter for the Community Resource Center. This was the first year the class raised money, she said.
Because one of the state standards for fifth grade is American history, Killeen explained she wanted to teach her children about the "rights every person deserves."
Throughout the year, the students read four novels dealing with children with disabilities, including "Wonder," which is about a boy with a facial deformation.
"We wondered, after reading this book, how we could make a difference in the life of a child living with one of these disabilities," Killeen said.
It was then that she found out about Operation Smile, and the students agreed to raise money for the organization.
The children collectively raised the $960 — enough for four cleft lip or palate surgeries — through an online fundraiser, candy gram sales and donated items that were sold at a holiday bazaar.
Killeen said her students learned they can make a positive change in someone's life. She added that one of her students continued asking for donations for Operation Smile on his birthday, after the class fundraiser had already concluded.
The teacher said she believed the effort especially made an impact on her students because, living in coastal San Diego, they may not have previously realized how costly it is for some families to pay for surgeries, even at $240 each.
"It made a huge difference to them in being aware how a little, tiny effort on their part could completely change someone else and being aware of how one thing, like a cleft palate, can make a child a victim of bullying," she said. "By providing the funds for their surgeries, we've made a huge difference."