Students making holidays bright for kids

ATWATER -- Just like the elves in Santa's workshop, several Atwater High School wood shop students are hard at work building toy trucks to give away at Christmastime.

Except these guys have traded in their pointy slippers for steel-toed boots and their square-rimmed spectacles for protective eyewear.

"I'm routing the back part of the trucks, where the tires are going to go," said freshman Jose Jaquez. A first-year wood shop student, Jose has stayed after school twice to help build 100 toy wooden logging trucks. "We're making them for the poor kids," he added.

The truck project was spawned during Atwater wood shop teacher Dan Flatt's summer vacation. While in Oregon, Flatt's wife bought a simple wooden truck as a souvenir for their son. "It cost about $20," he remembered. "I thought, 'Man, we could make these for a lot less than that.' "

To make the trucks, Flatt decided to open the wood shop after school once a week to any available wood shop students. His advanced classes have been doing some of the more complicated work during school hours, then assisting others after school with the more basic work. "It's been a team effort between my classes and the after-school kids," he said.

Junior Joshua McKeever, one of the advanced wood shop students, was drilling holes in part of the trucks' bases to attach the back trailer. "You pull the lever down here, then push down and you've got a hole," he explained as a drill punctured the wood.

That wood, along with all the material needed for the trucks, was donated by the Atwater-Winton Lions Club. President Kay McAfee said the club was happy to donate $200 toward the construction of the all-wood trucks. "We do a lot with the high schools," she said.

McAfee's relationship with the wood shop classes began seven years ago, when Flatt's students constructed built-in shelves around her fireplace as a class project. "They did beautiful work," she recalled.

McAfee said the Lions Club plans to give the toy trucks to Toys for Tots, Kops for Kids and Operation Santa, organizations that provide gifts to needy children during the holiday season. "It's great that (Flatt's) doing this," McAfee said, for his students and the children who will benefit from their work.

When not playing Santa, Flatt is doing his best to keep his wood shop going. "A lot of schools are doing away with them," he said, replacing industrial technology classes with computer courses.

"This is a good opportunity to learn a trade," Flatt said. And while spending time after school on the truck project is not a class requirement, the students who stay are learning problem- solving and self-management skills they might not get anywhere else.

Not even in Santa's workshop.