The blue curtains of South Waco Elementary School’s cafeteria stage parted to the delighted screams of more than 500 students. About a dozen University High School students stood on stage surrounded by gifts for 30 winners of the annual Make a Wish Come True essay contest.

Winners were announced Thursday, bringing beaming students tip-toeing their way through the cheering crowd to receive gifts often intended for someone in need.

Fourth-grader Ivan Rios, 11, one of the winners, asked for polo shirts and socks for his infant brother, born prematurely and still in the hospital.

“The hospital is so cold. (The clothes are) so he could be warm,” Rios said.

The Make a Wish Come True program started seven years ago when University High School’s Trojan soccer and JROTC programs decided to buy gifts for one child

from the high school and its five feeder schools: South Waco Elementary School, Alta Vista Elementary School, Bell’s Hill Elementary School, Kendrick Elementary School and Cesar Chavez Middle School.

University JROTC 1st Sgt. Leonard Montelongo Jr. said Make a Wish gained a lot of popularity the first year they sponsored 25 children. This year the students recruited enough sponsors to provide gifts for 180 students.

Soccer coach Mike Chapman said it costs $100 per child, but many sponsors buy well beyond that amount to provide gifts for the entire family.

Each student was asked to write an essay answering how they would use $100 for Christmas, and the schools’ administrations chose the winners, Montelongo said.

Chapman said the students are awarded gifts based on need, but they rarely ask for personal gifts.

“We knew there were a lot of kids in our sector who were in need for Christmas,” Chapman said in a previous interview. “You would be surprised when you read the letters. The kids are not asking for hardly anything for themselves.”

Many children ask for coats and blankets to help their families through the winter months, he said.

Heaven Bradley, 10, was included among those children this week as she stood near gift bags stuffed with pillows and blankets.

The heater at home doesn’t work, Heaven said, and they only have sheets on the beds. Her new blankets will help her and her two younger siblings stay warm at night.

Chapman said the requests can be heart-wrenching.

“They’re not your typically Dear Santa letters at all,” he said.

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