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- Reprinted with permission from the Missoulian
A group of first-graders, dressed in their pajamas to fit the "Polar Express" theme, react to the antics of Monte, who attended the assembly.
By Jamie Kelly of the Missoulian - Rudolph is still popular, but it was Monte the black-nosed Grizzly who brought down the house at Hawthorne Elementary on Wednesday afternoon.
Monte was on hand as one of Santa's elves to deliver warm hats and gloves and toys and goodies to the children at Hawthorne - just as they did the day before at Lowell Elementary - to make the holidays a little brighter, warmer and yummier. The gifts came just after students read "The Polar Express," an award-winning 1985 children's book made into a major Hollywood hit in 2004.
Appearing in the middle of an all-school assembly Wednesday, Monte drew the ear-piercing screeches of hundreds of children while performing acrobatics across the gym floor.
Montana Rail Link, in association with Southgate Mall, the University of Montana, Sears, Herberger's and the Missoula Education Foundation, delivered thousands of dollars worth of snacks, toys, gifts - along with warm hats and gloves - to every child at two Missoula schools over the past two days.
"We just want to make the kids warm and make a difference in our community," said Lynda Frost, spokeswoman for MRL.
MRL and the various businesses and agencies involved chose Lowell and Hawthorne to make their deliveries because both schools are home to the highest percentage of students in poverty, who are in the free-and-reduced lunch program and who are officially classified as "homeless."
In fact, nearly 80 percent of students at the schools are on free-and-reduced, a percentage that has risen over the last three years during the U.S. recession.
While Monte was leading a few of the students in a jig on the gym floor, MRL conductor Dean Ziegler, dressed in the crisp blue of his profession, readied himself to make an important stop on MRL's route.
MRL couldn't exactly bring a full-fledged train to the occasion.
"Unfortunately," he said, "most of my trains are up in Canada right now."
The Missoula Education Foundation, which funds special projects in Missoula's schools through grants and private money, had no hesitation about which MCPS schools would most benefit from the gift.
"Fortunately," he said, "we have a wonderful community that supports these kinds of needs."
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at email@example.com.