Amistad Elementary gets taste of Thanksgiving (w/ gallery)

KENNEWICK -- The little girl with big brown eyes made a face after tasting the red jam on her plate.

"What is this?" she asked her classmates.

Shrugs all around. Several small faces turned toward their teacher.

"Those are cranberries," Leanne Mewes answered.

But having a name for the foreign substance didn't make it more palatable to Belen Cerros.

"I don't like them," she whispered.

The second-grader had no such objections to the rest of the meal, however. She ate the turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy with gusto. Weird berries or not -- she fully enjoyed her first-ever Thanksgiving meal.

The free lunch dished out to the group of children Wednesday at Amistad Elementary School in Kennewick was born of the first-year teacher's passion for her job. It was her way of introducing the class of English language learners to an American culinary tradition.

Across the room, two girls were deep into their plates of comfort food when asked if they liked the turkey. Heads bopped up and down in unison for an emphatic "Yes."

"I've never had turkey," said Evelin Miranda, smiling as she stabbed another piece of it with her fork. "But it's good."

The catered lunch stemmed from an earlier conversation Mewes had with her class about traditions. When she spoke of her own family's Thanksgiving traditions and asked who else enjoyed anything similar, she was met with blank stares.

All 23 students in the class are learning English as a second language and all are eligible for free school lunches, which are granted to children from low-income families, Mewes said.

The young woman who just this summer got her bachelor's degree in teaching from Heritage University couldn't stand the thought of her kids missing out on the delicious holiday.

Looking for help, Mewes turned to an establishment she's patronized her entire life.

"It touched us to get this long letter from a first-year teacher," said Shirley Simmons, owner of Country Gentleman Restaurant and Catering, which donated the meal. "She was so concerned that these children weren't going to experience Thanksgiving -- we sent out all the basics."

Principal Andy Woehler said it's the first time a teacher at Amistad has brought in a catered holiday meal for a whole class.

There were strings attached, of course. The upcoming feast enriched the lesson plan for the past few weeks, Mewes said. She gave the students instruction in table manners, crash courses in world history to explain why the pilgrims left England and math problems involving grocery budgets.

The children even learned a song for the big day.

And now it was showtime.

"Vamos a dar gracias," teacher Luisa Mazzei called out to the class. "Vamos a cantar."

Prepare to give thanks and to sing.

Mazzei, a bilingual teacher who spends the first half of each school day teaching this class how to read in Spanish, started the recorded sound track.

Two dozen little voices rang out, singing in English a song that explained the history of Thanksgiving.

And then it was time to eat.

"You've got to try a little bit of everything," Mewes reminded the children. "Even if you don't know it, if you try it you might really like it."

Unless, that is, it's made of cranberries.