Children in raggedy clothes pocketed ketchup packets at lunch, trying to slip them into their jeans unnoticed.
"Why take ketchup packets?" thought Sherrie Gahn, who was new to Whitney Elementary School.
It's their dinner, a co-worker told her: ketchup soup.
It was a familiar story at the school, which has a high number of students who have no permanent place to live.
But a new chapter began eight years ago when Principal Gahn stepped into the school of 600 students near Tropicana Avenue and Boulder Highway.
"If you give me your child, I'll give you what you need," Gahn told the school's poorest parents.
Since then, Gahn has been paying the families' utility bills. The school feeds and clothes the children, cuts their hair and provides teeth cleanings. It even gives clothes to parents for job interviews.
Gahn's efforts have drawn the attention of talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who had the principal on her show Monday.
Many local businesses and individuals have donated time, money and supplies to the school. The donor list grew to 500 as a portable classroom behind the school turned into a food pantry and another turned into a closet full of kids' clothes. The number jumped to 600 after a segment on the "CBS Evening News" in early June.
"But the pantry is near empty," said teacher Kim Butterfield, who manages the donations. "It has gotten worse year after year. Now, it is the very worst."
The recession has deepened the destitution. Eight out of 10 students at Whitney are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch. A few are homeless, and many are on the brink of homelessness, living in week-to-week motels, Gahn said.
"When they leave here on a daily basis, sometimes we don't know where they're going," she said, because their addresses can constantly change.
The pantry will fill with donated food -- canned vegetables, soups, beans and rice -- but will be empty the next day, Gahn said. Parents come by to pick up food, usually on weekends to avoid embarrassment.
The point of all this help is to break the cycle, Gahn said, so that the children won't be in the same situation when they're parents.
"This does not define who they are," she said of the students, whom she calls "my babies."
The story of Whitney Elementary took an unexpected turn on national television Monday, when "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," on CBS, gave the school $100,000.
The money was a surprise until the show was taped Wednesday, said Carolyn Edwards, president of the Clark County School District's Board of Trustees.
"We didn't know about the $100,000. We had no clue," Edwards said. "Teachers were blown away. One came up to me and asked, 'Does that check say $100,000?' "
The money will buy the same things Gahn buys with every extra dollar she receives: teacher's supplies and food for students. But it's not necessarily a bonus because the school's budget was cut nearly in half this year.
"I thought we were sustaining until this year," Gahn said, also noting that the children's needs have never been greater.
And donations are falling short. The school doesn't have any socks or underwear for students as it normally does.
Students are in constant need of food. Every Friday, Butterfield gives students a bag of food meant to last through the weekend. It's all food they can prepare themselves -- ramen noodles, ravioli, juice boxes, pudding cups, granola bars and fruit snacks. That's because many students don't have parents around to feed them.
Gahn also will give five days of clothes to about 300 students in need, along with toothbrushes.
"They think it's the coolest thing ever that they get a toothbrush," she said. "Many don't have their own."
A wall in the pantry is lined with toys donated by businesses: Barbies, Transformers and board games.
Each month, a party is held for students with birthdays during that time. Each student picks a present and eats pizza and cake while magician Lance Burton performs.
"The kids who never smile, he gets them to smile," Butterfield said. "And they never smile. You wouldn't believe what some of these kids have seen."
The money wasn't the only surprise that DeGeneres had for Gahn. When the principal left last Tuesday for DeGeneres' set in Burbank, Calif., she didn't know that her students would be on the show via video cameras brought into the school.
The school's assistant principal had less than a day to pass out permission slips for students to be on TV and arrange transportation for them to leave school late. Half of the school's students sat together in front of the camera for an hour Wednesday, practicing and waiting for the signal: a TV screen that would eventually flicker on, showing DeGeneres and Gahn on set.
The children then shouted in support of their principal, Edwards said.
The show and retail giant Target gave each Whitney student a backpack stuffed with water bottles, a blanket, a toothbrush, pretzels, a 64-crayon pack, colored pencils, books and more.
Gahn is grateful but hopes the TV appearance will have another effect: to bring in more community support and donations.
It takes a village to raise a child, she said. "But sometimes the village doesn't know where to go. I'll put them to work."
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.