Student Drive-bys Bring Smiles to Families

Nina Patel (right) and Zach Zawacki drop off gifts for a Manhattan Beach family as part of “Friend-tastic Friday” May 8, 2020. (Photo by Bhavin Patel)

Mira Costa HS students and the Friendship Foundation team before Friday’s gift deliveries. (Photo by Bhavin Patel)

A group of high school kids committed numerous drive-by acts throughout the streets of Manhattan Beach Friday afternoon. And though there were plenty of witnesses, no one called the police.

Zach Zawacki, a junior at Mira Costa High School, six friends, family members and representatives of the Friendship Foundation were in the “Friend-tastic Friday” caravan, honking horns and delivering care packages to nine families with special needs children.

Zawacki and his friends donated all the items in the kids’ gift baskets, while the Friendship Foundation dropped off Mother’s Day cards and flowers for the moms, who have had to take on additional tasks as they care for their children due to COVID-19 and Los Angeles County’s Safer at Home health order.

“When COVID-19 hit, my grandpa showed me an article about families with special needs kids that were struggling because the kids can’t go to school and the programs to support these families aren’t available right now,” Zawacki said. “It’s super stressful for these families and I wanted to do something to help out.”

The idea came to Zawacki while dropping off a gift basket to his aunt Jenny, who is autistic. He saw the joy on his aunt’s face, remembered that article and decided he wanted to help special needs families.

As a member of the Youth Advisory Council for Beach Cities Health District, Zawacki reached out to his BCHD advisor, Jade McKnight, who connected him with Nina Patel, Managing Director of the Friendship Foundation, a Redondo Beach non-profit which supports parents and families who have children and young adults with special needs.

“Zach’s plan fit right with our three C’s: compassion, connection and community,” said Patel. “He told me about his aunt and how he wanted to do that for more people, something that was kid-related, which is right up our alley.”

“The date coincided with Mother’s Day, so we bought flowers and cards for the moms, since they have had to go above and beyond during this pandemic,” said Patel. “Our kids have unique needs when it comes to learning and with COVID-19, that job now falls to the parents. The cheer that we’re adding is just a little something we can do to lift spirits.”

Patel said having high school students interact with kids with special needs helps them connect on a different level. “The kids always seem to find a common ground,” said Patel. “Since COVID-19, we’ve started nine online programs to keep them engaged and the response has been terrific – now when these students go to college, our hope is they will continue these relationships they’ve built. It’s such a positive experience.”

Zawacki recruited fellow Mira Costa students Kieran Barksdale, Giovanni Horta, Lucas Horta, Alexa Pearl, Jamie Wilhelm and Zach’s brother Jackson. The group bought the gifts, made personalized posters and wrapped the packages for each child, which included bubble machines, sidewalk chalk, etch-a-sketches, frisbees, stickers, and cards signed by the volunteers.

Assembling at Pennekamp Elementary wearing gloves and face coverings, the students and the Friendship Team maintained a physical distance while making the deliveries to the families.

Nina Patel (right) and Zach Zawacki drop off gifts for a Manhattan Beach family as part of “Friend-tastic Friday” May 8, 2020. (Photo by Bhavin Patel)

“All the kids were super happy and excited to see us,” said Zowacki. “It was really awesome.”

Everyone liked the caravan. “My son Forest was just so jazzed to see the Friendship Foundation car parade,” said Yea-Lan Chiang. “The balloons, the car honks, the signs and the smiling faces of the volunteers and staff were so uplifting to him and me as well. It was much needed cheer for this very challenging period.”

“The toys and gorgeous flowers they gave us were just the cherry on top,” Chiang added.

Just in time for Mother’s Day.




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