A blaze may have destroyed a local restaurant this winter, but hundreds of hearts on fire couldn't be extinguished at Immaculate Conception School this week.
Students, parents, teachers and administrators at the grade K-8 school are expected to send about 6,000 Valentines to their friends and sweeties this week. The money raised will be donated to assist the employees who worked at Oscar's Classic Diner. The restaurant, located on Schotthill Woods Drive, succumbed to fire Jan. 31.
"It's incredibly touching. The kids have been so sweet," said Lisa Mankin, restaurant co-owner. "I've been told they are praying for us. That really helps lift our spirits."
The Valentine sale is organized by Immaculate Conception's Student Council. On Thursday, members of the council were speedily hand-signing hundreds of the small pink cards on behalf of the school's administration, who make sure every student receives a happy greeting.
The sale started Monday and ended Thursday. Students pay 25 cents to send each card.
"We always do a Valentine's Day sale," explained Tory Mueller, Student Council president and an eighth-grader at the school. "But this year, since Oscar's just had their fire before we picked a charity, we decided to give the funds to them."
Each pink slip is delivered with a Hershey Kiss and thanks the recipient for "sharing your love, friendship and happiness."
Girls tend to buy more cards for their friends than boys do, Mueller conceded. Although the cards are not intended to be sent anonymously, some kids do anyway. "You're not supposed to, but you can," she said.
Marlene Kuster, a school counselor and coordinator of the Student Council, said the project has been going on for about 15 to 20 years at Immaculate Conception.
"It's exciting," said Grace Boudreau, an eighth-grader. "It's something you get to keep, and you get candy as a bonus. I like to try to guess, just from the handwriting, who is sending me one."
Mueller said it is nice to be able to send a Valentine to everyone in her grade. "And it goes to a good cause," she added.
Mankin - who has a fourth-grader enrolled at the school - said she couldn't "thank the community enough" for all the assistance her family has received in the wake of the fire. She intends to pass the funds - about $1,000 is expected to be generated from the sale - on to the employees who will "really be blessed" by the donation. About 40 people were employed at the restaurant.
Mankin also reported her husband has spent part of this week meeting with contractors to determine what it will take to get the restaurant up and running. She noted fire investigators were never able to pinpoint a cause, despite examining the site for almost a week. The couple were only permitted to throw away food in the coolers recently.
The fire burned for two hours before it was spotted by a passing News Tribune employee. The prep area was completely destroyed and smoke ruined the rest of the building.
Repairing the restaurant will require workers to remove everything but the interior studs. The project is expected to take months; Mankin is hopeful Oscar's will reopen this summer.
"We're just taking one day at a time," said Mankin. "It's amazing how things can change in the blink of an eye."