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Little hands reaching out

First of all, Christine Harwell, the reading teacher, came on stage to warm up the audience of second- and third-graders. She led cheers: "KIDS CAN CARE ... KIDS CAN CARE ..."

The more the children shouted the words, the louder they sounded.

Finally she introduced the "mystery guest - his name is Mr. Can."

Slowly the curtain parted.

A strange figure stood there, back to the audience. He was in white tights with a funny hat made of foil. From almost his shoulders to almost his knees was something very like a lampshade.

Still with back to audience, the strange figure began a loping-about sort of dance, all the while backing to the front of the stage. Finally he turned.

The faces of the children lit up. They had just recognized John Lash, principal of north St. Petersburg's Lynch Elementary School.

This assembly was part of a project called KIDSTART, a campaign in most Pinellas County public schools and many private and parochial ones to make children sympathetically aware of the homeless.

Lynch scholars had come to school Monday morning with cans of food for the poor. Lash's antics were to thank those who had brought food and to remind those who hadn't that the can drive would continue through the week. (Adults can contribute cans of food at any Eckerd drug store.) Operation KIDSTART originated in June at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service. Since then, 20 agencies and businesses have taken part.

After his opening prance-about, Lash called up four volunteers (in the second grade, they will still volunteer for almost anything) for his "Game of Life." A boy named Jesse was the father, a girl named Jenifer, the mother. They had two children.

"Father Jesse went out and got a job," Lash said. "Not a very good job, since he hadn't graduated from high school and only had a second-grade education." (The principal is not above a little burst of propaganda when opportunity surfaces.) "So his take-home pay for a week is only $100." Lash gave father Jesse $100 in play money, then began to total expenses. "Rent - $50, not a bad rent." He took $50 of Jesse's play money.

"Does this family need anything? What's that, mother Jenifer? Both your children need new shoes?" He took away $20 more. "And the electric bill has to be paid." Another $20.

"So father Jesse has $10 left. And what hasn't he paid for yet?"

"Food," the children chorused.

"How many days worth of food will $10 buy for a four-person family?"

"One day," a boy yelled enthusiastically.

"Maybe. But anyway there are six more days in the week. What happens on those days?"

"Hunger," shouted a girl.

"Exactly," Lash said. "So you see, sometimes a hard-working family can just flat out run out of money. Mom and dad get into a situation where they can't buy enough groceries, and they need help.

Hey, it could happen to any of us."

Lash took another handful of paper money, brandished it aloft, then opened his hand. The money drifted to the floor.

"What happens when we run out of money?"

Silence fell over the children. For once, no one waved a hand to be called upon.

"We get poor, that's what happens," Lash said. "Then we need help. And that's what this is all about. Helping one another."

The children filed out, and Lash, 42, looked after them, smiling.

"They've seen me in other funny get-ups. On Valentine's Day, I have my Cupid wings and my aviator's hat and my bow and arrow.

"But they get the messages. Today, I think they'll walk away and remember some of this."

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