Sitting inside the cafeteria of the Mission Education Center, 9-year-old Alexandra examined a tray laden with cornbread, pumpkin pie, sliced turkey topped with gravy, and a pile of macaroni and cheese placed in front of her.
“There is too much cheese,” the fifth grader said in Spanish.
Next to her, Monica, 10, came to a different conclusion about her first Thanksgiving meal.
“I think it is delicious,” she said, adding that in her home country of El Salvador, the food is similar.
Hailing from Central and South America, students at the Mission Education Center at 1670 Noe St. — a K-5 transition school for children of newly immigrated families — got their first taste of Thanksgiving a week early on Thursday afternoon. The meal was intended to help the young new arrivals familiarize themselves with the upcoming holiday that’s an annual tradition in many American households.
“This is an opportunity for our kids to experience a traditional American holiday, but also it’s a time for us where we give thanks and express our gratitude for all for the great things we experienced in our lives,” Carla Llewelyn-Vasquez, the school’s principal, said. “Many kids come here under traumatic experiences and coming here, they give thanks.”
The Mission Education Center since 1972 has served immigrant students in grades K-5 whose primary language is Spanish.
Students enrolled there are subject to one year of in instruction in Spanish, with one hour of English development per day to help students acclimate and gain confidence in their language skills before transferring into The City’s schools, said Llewelyn-Vasquez.
“Our goal is to get the kids up to grade level and to provide a seamless transition into their next school setting,” said Llewelyn-Vasquez, who is from Panama, adding that her staff is comprised almost entirely of immigrants. “We have an understanding of the immigrant experience, which really helps a lot.”
Before lunch was served, groups of students were prompted to recite poems and songs in both Spanish and English to their classmates.
For the past 46 years, the school has parented with the Geneva Excelsior Lions Club, a service club organization, to serve up the Thanksgiving meal.
The idea was hashed out by the school’s former principal, Deborah Molof, and a member of the club, current member Joe Gentile said.
“They decided they wanted to introduce the Spanish speaking students to their first Thanksgiving, which was foreign to them,” Gentile said. The club donated some $700 to feed the school’s 93 students.
The “First Thanksgiving” luncheon, now a tradition of its own at the school, helps the recently immigrated students “assimilate into America and American culture,” Gentile said. “Thanksgiving is unknown to them in their home countries. The food and traditions are different.”
While pumpkin pie and cornbread generally are a hit, the luncheon’s organizers have learned over the years that some traditional Thanksgiving side dishes are less popular among the school’s youth.
“Early on, when we did this, we used to give the kids turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes and vegetables — they wouldn’t eat it,” said Sharon Eberhardt, president of the Geneva Excelsior Lion’s Club. “We figured out that the kids like macaroni and cheese, and we switched it out with cornbread because they were things that were familiar to them.”