"Woo-hoo, this one's got smelly breath," Lauren stage-whispered, rubbing the wiggly 6-month-old's soft, floppy ears. "But she's really cute."
Lauren and 16 classmates at Beck Middle School celebrated a school year's worth of work yesterday: Since September, they had devoted their daily advisory period to raising money for canines trained by the Seeing Eye, a nonprofit agency in Morristown, Morris County, that provides dogs for blind people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
It was a breakfast gala complete with thank-you talks, testimonials from people whom the children's efforts helped, and, most important, the canine equivalent of the Academy Award: gaily wrapped boxes of dog treats for each pooch in the spotlight.
Spiffed up in dress pants and button-down shirts, sixth graders Jay Davis and Tariq Haq presented Seeing Eye representative Rosemary Carroll with a check for $1,400.
In September, art teacher Carolyn Kleiner's students began creating 2002 calendars to sell to raise money for the project. They chose the text, firmed up design ideas, sent out pages, and eventually punched holes, tied ribbons and organized the finished product they sold to family and friends.
Jaclyn Allen offered insight into the process:
"It was hard, but it was amazing when it was done," she said of the narrow, multicolored calendars. She said the hardest part was limiting their work to 45 minutes per day.
All Beck students spend their advisory periods in some kind of life-skills lesson. Kleiner's students said they had lucked out with the Seeing Eye project.
In addition to selling calendars, the students donned blindfolds and took walks, gaining insight into the sightless world.
"We learned how blind people do things," Jackie Kim explained. "It was pretty cool."
"We had to close our eyes and figure out the difference between a nickel and a penny," Alex Kendus added.
Caitlin Dougherty chipped in: "You can't just go up to a blind person and pet their dog. It might throw them off their duty."
For their efforts, the class earned the right to name one dog. The students chose Russell.
Joe Cerami, a Haddonfield native who recently moved to Stow Creek, Cumberland County, attended the event. Cerami, who is legally blind, often gives talks to schoolchildren on behalf of the Seeing Eye. He took the opportunity yesterday to remind the students that their hard work meant something real.
Cerami's gentle black Lab, Flo - trained with money donated by groups like the Beck children - saved him from serious harm about three weeks ago, he said. Walking down a railing-less flight of steps, he lost his footing.
"Within seconds, she was so quick - she pulled me against the wall," Cerami said. "If she hadn't done that, I'd have tumbled on that concrete on my head."
For many, that hit home.
"It's really cool to know we're helping people," Julia Hinlicky said. "It's a nice feeling."
Kleiner and her students know the importance of volunteering.
"You should be proud," Kleiner told her students, lined up facing the dogs and beaming. "Your spirit of giving allowed this to happen."
Contact Kristen Graham at 856-779-3927 or email@example.com.