When Maya Ciemons, 13, visited a Laguna preschool with some of her peers to put on a holiday party for the tots, she found herself partnered with a small boy who wouldn't talk much and didn't seem to be having much fun.

But, she eventually found the way to bring a smile to his lips: a game of tag.

"A great moment for me was when he got out of his shell and was having fun," Maya said. "He loved tag."

Thurston Middle School's Peer Assistance Leadership club, or PAL, kicked off the holidays Dec. 5 with a day of giving back that included a holiday celebration at the La Playa Center, dropping off the last donations from a Hunger and Homeless Awareness Food Drive at the Laguna Food Pantry and a visit to Alternative Sleeping Location.

"For PAL, a lot of our focus is on community service," said co-advisor Wendy Hughes, who oversees the club with Carrie Leventhal.

The seventh- and eighth-grade students got to see what that the Food Pantry offers those in need and what life is like at the ASL.

The trip was a reminder for some students of how lucky they have it, but also a feeling of gratitude for living in a community that doesn't shun or try to remove those in need. Instead, the community reaches out to help its own.

"I think it's great how woven together Laguna is as a community," said Jonah Reynolds, 13. "Laguna is a really wealthy community, and I think it's great to give back."

At La Playa, the middle schoolers met the parents who are learning English while their children attend preschool and got the chance to play with the kids and serve them the PAL's traditional holiday treat: doughnuts and chocolate milk.

"It was cute," said Vanessa Lortal, 13. "It made me feel happy because they had a great time. I'm glad we do something for the holidays."

The PALs had a wrapped present for each of the kids to take home, which seemed to be the only gift some of the kids will get for Christmas, the students said.

Jonah said his preschool partner was told not to believe in Santa Claus because he wouldn't get presents.

"It was really sad," he said. "I was glad to be his friend and give him a present."

The entire day left the students with a sense that they can give back to the their community, and even small gestures could make a big difference.

"It made me realize I can help in my community," Maya said. "I don't have to go to Africa."

Britney.barnes@latimes.com

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes