Teens from Fowler High School dressed up in navy blazers and red-striped ties carried Christmas packages Friday afternoon from room to room in the children's oncology unit at Children's Hospital Central California.
Sophomore Gabriel Rodriguez, 15, led the way carrying an oversized Christmas card as another student handed a brightly wrapped gift to 11-year-old Juan Carlos, who's being treated for stage four lymphoma.
"It's nice to be back," said Gabriel, who remembers visiting the hospital when his sister was diagnosed with diabetes. "I've seen kids with different (medical conditions), and it's nice knowing they have smiles on their faces."
Gabriel and the group of more than 20 teenagers from Fowler are part of Redcat Men's Alliance, a class for at-risk boys that aims to give them leadership skills and ways to give back to the community. They have a dress code -- khakis, ties and sport coats -- and are getting extra mentoring from teachers to help them succeed.
The program, which started this year, is already paying off: the boys, many of whom had bad grades, are improving academically and showing an interest in volunteering, said Principal Hank Gutierrez.
"The goal is that these young men see the world around them is bigger than just them," he said. "And, to give back could change somebody's life."
Over the past few months, the boys have volunteered at Fowler elementary schools, mentoring youngsters and reading storybooks to classrooms full of kids. Friday was the group's biggest excursion to date: they all piled into a school bus and traveled more than 20 miles north to Madera County to deliver presents and holiday cheer to sick kids.
The boys raised $350 through a grant and donations -- some from their own pockets -- to buy art sets, books and other toys. It was easy to tell from how the presents were wrapped -- lime green paper and Hello Kitty gift bags -- that the teens did all the work.
"Doing something for them makes you feel great and them feel great," said Gabriel Tovar, a freshman.
The 14-year-old is in the Redcat Men's Alliance because his math and history grades were plummeting during middle school. He credits his teachers -- who he says have given him more support and encouragement to volunteer -- for his recent improvements.
"I started staying after school, studying more, participating more and eventually started getting good at (math)," he said. "Math is cool. I just needed a lot of help on it."
Keeping up with school was also trying for 14-year-old Martin Zapata. He said Friday's visit helped give him perspective on how to handle some of his own challenges.
Seeing kids with serious illnesses is "new for me, and it's heavy-hitting knowing what they have," he said. "It's important to give back to the community, and it feels good doing something for others."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, email@example.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.