Sharing with others less fortunate is a concept that is frequently touted by a variety of nonprofit and charitable organizations, particularly around holidays. And Beethoven Elementary School in Mar Vista has found a vehicle where it can merge the themes of music, theatre and giving.
Kristin Duerr, who taught at the elementary school several years ago, returned three years ago to assist the students in organizing a December performance that ties into a food drive in which faculty and students also take part. The entire student body is involved in the play, which this year featured singing and the concept of friendship and sharing with strangers who are less fortunate.
“We have been doing a play for six years, and this year the school really wanted to up the ante,” said Duerr, a former actress who is directing the performance. “So I decided that I would take this one on.
“We tie together music, fine art, theatre, stage production, philanthropy and literacy into one very large bow.”
This year’s play, which took place Dec. 15, was adapted from the children’s book, “Boxes for Katje.” The story revolves around two girls from two different continents, Katje Van Stegeran in Holland and Rosie Johnson in Indiana.
Based on the experiences of author Candace Fleming’s mother’s childhood recollections, the book examines friendship and sharing during a time of great need.
In post-World War II Holland, items such as soap, sugar and clothing are difficult to come by because of the ravages of the six-year war that left much of Europe’s villages and cities in shambles. After learning through charity organizations about Europe’s plight, Rosie decides to send Katje a box of chocolates. After subsequently learning that Katje’s family and village also need sugar and other staples, Rosie sends another box with sugar.
This sets in motion a series of CARE packages from Indiana to Holland and the beginning of the friendship between the two girls. The following spring, Katje’s village sends tulips to Rosie’s family for her to share with her town.
The packages sent to Katje’s village were part of the initial effort by the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, from which the acronym CARE is derived. CARE was the humanitarian organization created in 1945 to send packages to Europe, where large numbers of people faced starvation after the war. The initial boxes contained food, but later included blankets, food supplies and medicine.
Beethoven fifth graders made up the cast of the play and the remaining grade levels sang a variety of songs. Many songs focused on the holiday season, others were popular tunes such as “It’s a Small World,” and some intertwined with the overarching theme of the play: friendship and sharing.
“Our focus this year was giving,” Duerr explained. “And ‘Boxes for Katje’ is a wonderful story about giving. It’s one of those books that just makes you smile.”
Duerr chose the cast of the play, which involved an interview and auditions in September. Rehearsals took place once a week leading up to the day of the play and everyone involved in the production read the book.
“Those who didn’t get to act do other things,” she said.
Some of the other things involved being part of the production crew, student narrators, or working with lighting, sound and costumes.
“Each year, our performances are run by the students,” Duerr said. “You can tell just by working with them how much they crave (performing) and being a part of the play.”
Students of all grade levels decorated the elementary school’s auditorium with artwork and portraits, and diversity was also incorporated into the play through song.
The theme of the story also ties in with Beethoven’s annual food drive as well as the spirit of sharing during the holidays, Duerr said.
“We do this every year,” she said. “This year, it has special meaning because we are really carrying on a tradition that we now have learned about.”
At the end of the play, Duerr displayed an authentic CARE package that has never been opened.
Beethoven Parent-Teachers Association President Kathy Vigil runs the food drive at the school, which helps 20 needy families.
“There are a lot of families in Mar Vista and at Beethoven who are in need,” said Vigil, who was one of the many parent volunteers that worked on the play. “It makes the season a little better for them.”
Many families also assist at a larger food drive at the Barker Hangar at Santa Monica Airport sponsored by One Voice, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit organization helping families living at the poverty level.
The Beethoven families helped by packing a version of 21st century CARE packages for low-income families. Each child receives books and toys and every family is given a basket with a turkey, rolls, carrots, squash, potatoes, yams, onions, rice, beans, bags of apples and oranges, candy, a fresh apple pie and canned goods, according to the organization’s website.
Kelli Paul-Young, the organization’s assistant director, said approximately 2,500 Head Start families receive packages from One Voice.
Dr. Gracie Jones, whose last day as principal of Beethoven was Dec. 16, saw the students perform for the first time.
“I thought it was just fantastic; it’s wonderful,” she said after the play. “I’m so glad that Beethoven still considers the arts to be a high priority, especially during these times of budget cutting.”
Vigil thinks this year’s performance was especially well done. “As the years go by, the parents and students tend to know what to do, but I think that this year was the best one,” she said.
After the play, Duerr said what impressed her was how orderly everything was and how well the students performed.
“I think they needed an audience,” the director said. “Everything really fell into place.”
Jones said the story, along with the children’s performances, made the play special.
“It’s still very timely,” she said. “This is a time where many people all over the world are in need, so the idea of the CARE packages and the thought behind it are still very relevant.”
Duerr sees a great deal of symbolism with the unopened box and the message of “A Box For Katje.”
“We see this as one big CARE package,” she concluded.