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ALC 'lunch lady' makes stockings for 91 students

Ithzel Valverde, 14, of Willmar, shows off her stocking made by Cheryl Peterson. The lunchroom cashier at Willmar's Area Learning Center, Peterson made an 8-inch Christmas stocking for each of the school's 91 students. (Tribune photo by Bill Zimmer)

WILLMAR -- The Christmas stockings are red and green. They are decorated with craft foam cut in the shapes of snowmen, snowflakes, peppermint candies and gingerbread cookies.

They covered a section of the wall in the gymnasium/lunchroom at Willmar's Area Learning Center.

But the most important part on each one is the fluffy white cuff embroidered with a student's name.

On her own time and using her own money, lunchroom cashier Cheryl Peterson made an 8-inch Christmas stocking for each of the school's 91 students. The ALC is an alternative high school for students in grades 7-12.

Before leaving last week for winter break -- which officially begins today for the Willmar School District, each student took home a personalized stocking and a bag of treats from Peterson.

"I made pumpkins for Halloween, and they really enjoyed them," Peterson said. "I decided, each holiday I'd do something." The craft foam pumpkins were also personalized for each student.

"After I saw how they liked the pumpkins, it gave me a great feeling," she said.

"When you see the kids, the look on their faces, even the boys, you wouldn't think they'd care, but they do," she said. "They were all looking for their names."

Work on the stockings started after Thanksgiving, and she worked on each one about 20 to 30 minutes. Peterson didn't stop with the ALC students. She made stockings for her daughter's confirmation class, for the ALC office staff and for her bosses in the school lunch program.

Along the way, she had to remake a couple stockings. Sometimes, the first spelling of a name she received was wrong, and she had to remake the stocking to get the name spelled right.

The ALC receives new students frequently, so she's had to keep up. "The new students couldn't believe their stocking was up right away," she said.

Peterson said she hopes her holiday gestures make a small difference in the students' lives. From their reaction, she guessed that many of them had not had a personalized stocking before.

"They're a great bunch of kids," she said. She serves them breakfast, as well, so she has gotten to know the students.

"They become friends," she said, and she hopes they feel "like they can trust me."

Her family has accepted her habit of retiring to her little sewing room in the evenings, Peterson said. "They just shake their heads." She didn't keep track of what the project cost her, she said, and she really doesn't want to know.

Peterson has worked in the school district for a number of years as a paraprofessional, but she just started last fall as the cashier at the ALC.

The other decoration at lunchtime is a small artificial tree standing on a table, decorated with miniature kitchen utensils and oven mitts. Kim Ness, the school's program coordinator, called it a "cook's tree."

Ness said it has been heartwarming to see how much the stockings mean to the students. When they were first hung in the gym/cafeteria, kids would stop her and point to a stocking, "Did you see mine?"

Ness said she didn't know until recently that Peterson's sewing machine broke down midway through her project and she bought a new one.

"I told my husband I needed one for Christmas," Peterson said. "It was either quit or get a new sewing machine and go on."

Ivy Delagarza, 17, said Peterson even made a stocking for her sister, Sasha, 18, who was in a car accident recently and was hospitalized in the Twin Cities. "I told her the lunch lady made her a stocking," Ivy said.

Sasha smiled at the stocking, but she can't really talk yet, Ivy said.

Ivy said the students appreciate the stockings. "They're cute," she said.

"It was really nice of the lunch lady to do that," said Ithzel Valverde, 14. She smiled when she said she'd heard that there would be candy for them, too.

Ithzel said she didn't think she could have made all those stockings herself -- "maybe just one."

She showed off her stocking, decorated with a cardinal and holly leaves. "I like the little decorations they have," she said.

Margaret Hawley, who teaches the school-to-work transition class, said Peterson has been very kind to the students in the school. "She would double check to make sure everyone had a stocking."