Oak Grove Superintendent Delivers Discarded Pencils to Puerto Vallarta Kids
Mick Zawislak - Daily Herald
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April 1, 2017

The suitcase full of pencils Oak Grove Elementary District 68 Superintendent Lonny Lemon delivered to a school in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. Courtesy of Lonny Lemon

In this digital age, it's hard to imagine where a pencil fits in a school day.

Maybe that's why so many of them are dropped or discarded at Oak Grove Elementary District 68 in Green Oaks.

But for the past five years, that loss has been a big gain for less fortunate students in an elementary school in Mexico, where desks appear to date from the 1960s and conditions and equipment are primitive in comparison.

Each year since he started in 2012, District 68 Superintendent Lonny Lemon and the custodial staff have kept watch for pencils left on the floor. Instead of throwing them away, they are collected for Lemon's annual spring trip to Puerto Vallarta.

"Many of the custodians were born in Mexico and make the extra effort to save the pencils for the students," Lemon said. He said he happened upon Ignacio L. Vallarta School downtown in the city on Mexico's west coast about 15 years ago during a visit.

"It is beyond poor," Lemon said. "I could see inside the windows how impoverished the school was."

During his career, Lemon had a habit of picking up pencils in school hallways and it dawned on him there may be a use for his finds. Beginning about 10 years ago when he worked for Quincy District 172, he began taking the collection to Puerta Vallarta.

"There also is a Catholic girls school here that I've given them to," he said. Both are K-8 schools. Ignacio Vallarta has four rooms and 200 students, Lemon said, operating in two shifts -- in the morning, then afternoon to early evening.

During his time at Oak Grove, Lemon and the staff have collected 13,500 pencils, including a haul of 2,800 this school year. Ozzie Suarez, maintenance director at District 68, was born in a small town near Guadalajara and helps coordinate the pencil pickup with the staff, Lemon said.

"They always are curious at the airports. It's an odd carry-on, for sure," Lemon said. "When I explain it, they always wave us through."

This past Tuesday, Lemon and fellow traveler Kris Hoult threw bundles of 25 pencils -- along with one big bundle for fun -- through the locked gates and onto the grounds of the school in Puerto Vallarta.

Inside each bag was a picture and a note written by Suarez in Spanish, describing where Oak Grove is and who collects the pencils for them. A school custodian there picked them up Wednesday morning and distributed them to classrooms.

Remarkably, in all these years, Lemon never had been inside or met anybody associated with the school, as it not been in session when he visited.

That changed Wednesday afternoon when he went back to check on his delivery.

"They had read the letter and came running and gave me a hug when I went into the school," Lemon said. "It was really cool."

The school floor is cement, there are no bookshelves, displays or amenities, and each room has only student chairs/desks, a teacher desk and a small chalkboard, Lemon said. He estimated the desks were 50 years old.

"It makes you appreciate what we have in Lake County," he said.

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