Las Vegas, Dec 17: Fifth-grader Jolie Leach says she “was gonna explode” with excitement when Justin Bieber performed a concert at her Las Vegas school, and vowed she’d never wash her hand after he gave her a high-five.
Leach was one of hundreds who showed clear symptoms of Bieber fever after the 17-year-old teen pop sensation staged a private show Friday at low-income Whitney Elementary School. The concert was filmed for an episode of “The Ellen Degeneres Show” and came two months after Bieber promised the school’s 650 students a $100,000 donation.
“He really came for us. I’m so glad that he really came for us,” said fourth-grader Kynedi Harris, holding a fluffy white stuffed dog picked from a truckload of toys Bieber distributed at his show.
Tucked in a downtrodden neighborhood on the east side of Las Vegas, Whitney Elementary has garnered publicity, including a September segment on Degeneres’ show, for providing needy students’ families with food, clothes, money for utility bills—and just about everything in between.
Principal Sherrie Gahn said more than 85 percent of the school’s 600-plus students receive free or reduced-price lunch. The school also has one of the highest homeless student populations in the Clark County School District.
Gahn, who said she used to see students pocketing ketchup packets from the cafeteria in hopes of having dinner at night, told “The Ellen Degeneres Show” she made a pact with families after she arrived about eight years ago.
“I’ll pay your electrical bill, your utilities, I’ll give you food or clothes, whatever you need, as long as you give me your child and then help raise that child as a person of character,” she said.
Families at the school told the show Gahn has stayed true to her promise. One girl said Gahn provided her with a bed. A mother said the principal bought her son glasses. Another mother said the school provided her children with Christmas presents when she planned to skip the gift-giving.
Gahn said most of the donations come from individuals or businesses, and she said the show has brought hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and an outpouring of support from across the country. The school also posts a “wish list” on its website, asking for granola bars, pop-top cans of soup and other non-perishable foods that homeless students can eat for dinner or over the weekend.
Bieber’s gift matches a $100,000 donation from Target that was announced on the September TV special about the school. Most of the money will be used to continue basic support—such as rent assistance—to keep families off the street and children coming to class.
“My biggest motivator for the kids and the thought and the hope that they don’t have to live in this existence when they grow up—that they break the cycle,” Gahn said.
Inside the closed event, Gahn said Bieber toured the campus and told students the story of his family’s own financial struggles, including visits to a food bank when he was young. He performed songs from his Christmas album, “Under the Mistletoe,” and invited the crowd to dance along to his hit “Baby.”
Outside, dozens of squealing high school girls with camera phones jockeyed for a glimpse of the star as he was rushed into the building. Brittany Ellis, 14, had pulled out a scrap of paper just in time for a mobbed Bieber to autograph, and was showing her friends an indecipherable pencil scrawl.
Another girl, 17-year-old Kiersten Umberger, said she nearly cried when she saw Bieber. “It was the best moment of my life,” she said.
Teens from the neighborhood say the worn area is quiet, and certainly not the typical Vegas haunt for celebrities. But parents and school officials said they were as grateful for the gifts from Bieber and Degeneres as the children were starstruck.
“In a world where these kids live in that things are not always their own or they’re taken away,” Gahn said, “they gave them memories that no one can ever take.”