Niurka Valdes put her crayon back in her coloring box and looked at the paper lunch sack she had just finished coloring.
She had filled the white bag with orange, yellow and purple, and in big black letters, she had neatly spelled out her message for whoever was about to receive it.
"We love you no matter what."
Valdes, 8, was writing to one of nearly 150 residents of Pinellas Hope, a homeless shelter near Largo that received the gift of a catered lunch Tuesday afternoon, courtesy of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin.
The entire student body began filing into the cafeteria just after 9 a.m. to tackle the service project, the first of its kind for the school. Administrators organized the activity as part the school's Catholic Schools Week celebration.
"We always like to add an element of service to Catholic Schools Weeks," said Mary Rehm, the school's early childhood teacher.
The entire student body hustled to pack the meals, with older students stuffing zip-close bags with snacks and slathering peanut butter and jelly onto sliced bread.
Each meal included two sandwiches and two plastic bags filled with pretzels and cookies.
The Rev. Gary Dowsey, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, walked among the bustling students, smiling. He said the activity teaches students the value of helping those less fortunate.
"We shouldn't forget the people at our own doorstep who need our love and care," he said.
Early childhood students up through the third grade used crayons and markers to decorate white paper lunch bags with dolphins jumping out of the ocean, flowers and polka dots.
On most bags, encouraging phrases fit in between the drawings: "God loves you." "Have faith."
One appeared frequently.
An hour after the rush began, students were putting the last of the colorful bags into plastic bins and cardboard boxes destined for Pinellas Hope. Small mountains of snack bags and sandwiches were left over after the 150 were counted out. All extra food was also delivered.
Around noon, 14 eighth-graders arrived at Pinellas Hope to serve residents, who received the middle-schoolers thankfully.
"It's all so positive," said Doug Everett, 57.
A Pinellas Hope resident for only about a week, he said projects like these help students understand that many of the area's homeless are normal people in an unfortunate struggle.
"People really see the situation as it really is," he said. "The people here are not lazy."
Marissa Griffith, 13, said she had previously volunteered at Pinellas Hope a few Christmases ago as part of a family community service day. She was glad to see the facilities have become more comfortable for residents, with a community center and efficiency apartments having opened last year.
She said residents were grateful for the meals — and particularly the artwork.
"People really liked the pictures the little kids drew," she said.
The class toured the property after lunch as Angelia Mosely, housing manager, explained the work done there.
Echoing Everett, she said most of the people who arrive at Pinellas Hope have a lift in spirits when they realize that someone cares.
"Most people, when they come, think that they're pretty close to the gum on the bottom of average people's shoes," she said.
She said she was warmed by the students' enthusiasm and eagerness to help, and she could see how the experience was eye-opening for some.
"It brings it all home," she said. "It's very powerful and it matters."
Throughout the day, students said they enjoyed the project for several reasons: They wanted to help the homeless, they had fun coloring and, in the case of the eighth grade, they got to go on a field trip.
Valdes didn't have to think long to express her favorite part of the whole activity: "Learning how to love them and give them food."