As they sit around the table, they think of their faraway friends. The ones who have made a habit of sending them presents — handmade dolls, fancy chopsticks and spinning tops made of brightly colored paper. The friends they've seen in photos, like Suzuka, Runa and Akari. The ones they've never seen in real life.
St. Jerome Early Childhood Center in Largo has had a sister-school relationship with Midori Preschool in Niigata, Japan, since 2002. But this year, after the devastating 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit the country on March 11, the young children of St. Jerome became even more mindful of their Japanese pen pals.
"If I could, I'd ask them if they are okay," said Cameron Bell, 4.
"I know some people in Japan don't have homes, and they could get struck by lightning,'' said Milla Wrzesniewski, 5.
Just as she has for the past nine years, school director Denise Roach and her staff began teaching a winter unit on Japan this past January, incorporating Midori School in the curriculum. One class began piecing together 25 photographs for a peace quilt. Another began making doves decorated with lace.
"Over the years, we've sent back-and-forth special food, artwork and letters, and it has been a great way to expose children to a different country,'' Roach said. "We start off by getting out a map and showing them where Japan is, and then we go on and talk about ways they are the same and different.''
Immediately after news broke regarding the earthquake, it seemed that every person visiting the center greeted the staff with the same words: Has St. Jerome's heard from the preschool located in northern Japan?
It was through Cindy Warszynski, a former teacher at St. Jerome's, that the relationship between the two schools started. Warszynski, who continues to work as a substitute at the school, had traveled to Niigata to visit her daughter Jamie Davis, who was working in Japan as a speech therapist.
Although her daughter now lives in Oregon, Davis was able to contact the administration at Midori to check on the children's safety.
"We found out that the area of Niigata was not directly impacted by the initial earthquake and tsunami,'' Roach said. "But we have not had contact with them since the pending concerns of nuclear contamination,'' Roach said. "We wonder how they are doing, and the classes keep them in their prayers."
After the earthquake, St. Jerome's staff began discussing the current events in terms that the children could understand, said Mary McBroom, one of St. Jerome's teachers. For example, they described the tsunami as "big waves that came and caused a flood that left people without homes and without much food or water to drink,'' she said.
On April 20, after she confirmed with the U.S. Postal Service that mail was being delivered in Japan, Roach mailed the completed art projects, along with American treats including Cracker Jack.
"We know it might be a while before we hear from them,'' she said.
Until then, the students at St. Jerome continue to discuss their friends daily.
"I am going to send them clothes,'' said Sara Robinson, 5. "I have dresses that are too small, and I know some of the children who don't have the houses could wear them.''
Sophia Spurgeon, 5, wants them to know she's praying for just one thing for them.
"I just don't want them to have any more trouble.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at email@example.com.