LOS ANGELES, Calif.–For four girls and four boys who attend the LA’s BEST After School Enrichment Program won an all expenses-paid trip to London, England, courtesy of BritWeek, Air New Zealand, the five-star Athenaeum Hotel and several other sponsors. Their winning essays were their ticket to an amazing international adventure. The Joy of Reading Book Club and Essay Contest was conceived by BritWeek’s Bob Peirce and Sharon Harroun Peirce in partnership with LA’s BEST as a way to introduce students in the after school program to classic British children’s literature.

Prior to boarding their plane, the children attended a special send-off event hosted by Air New Zealand in its exclusive Koru Club lounge at LAX. The students were greeted by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilmember Tom LaBonge, who wished them a safe and enjoyable trip and sent them on their way with their favorite London travel tips. Members of the BritWeek Board of Directors and the LA’s BEST Board of Directors, parents and family members of the student winners and staff from LA’s BEST who traveled to London with the children as chaperones were all on hand for the send-off celebration.

“There is no education like travel for any child. Giving them a glimpse of another culture will enlarge their view of life on this planet,” said Henry Winkler, one of the judges of the essay contest.

As part of the Joy of Reading, students at 84 LA’s BEST sites formed “Classic British Book Clubs” and chose titles from a long list of children’s classics written by British authors. The books were then read aloud by both students and adult staff to expose all children in the clubs to the stories. After completing the book, the students wrote essays about which character they most identified with in the story. Before the contest began, students were informed that there was a very exciting prize for contest winners, but were not informed it was a trip to London.

From the participating schools, there were more than 450 submissions, which were narrowed down to the top eight winners by judges Rhea Perlman, Jane Seymour, Henry Winkler, Chair of the BritWeek Board and former British Consul General in Los Angeles Bob Peirce, author Karen Winnick and Air New Zealand’s Kathryn Gregory, who all generously donated their time to the project. The eight winners are Pyper Abrigo, who attends Limerick Elementary in Canoga Park, Neilwon Andrews from Loren Miller Elementary in South Los Angeles, Nancy Bonilla and Cartier Judge from Allesandro Elementary in Elysian Valley, Andres Garcia from Euclid Elementary in Boyle Heights, Justin Linares from Maurice Sendak Elementary in North Hollywood, Jethro Valenzuela from Glen Alta Elementary in Lincoln Heights and Martha Violeta Valle from Fair Avenue Elementary in North Hollywood.

In London, the students will visit Buckingham Palace, ride on the famous London Eye, tour the Tower of London, see performances of the West End musicals The Wizard of Oz and Shrek the Musical, attend a reception at London’s City Hall with Mayor Boris Johnson, and more. Student winner Jethro Valenzuela, a 5th grader, said he’s most excited by “the idea of being able to experience live theatre on the stage and of course, the plane ride.”

“It was a joy to read the children’s essays,” said BritWeek Chairman Bob Peirce, “and to see how much they had enjoyed reading these great British classics. Reading opens doors, and for these eight winners it has opened a door to London. Congratulations to all of them.”

LA’s BEST provides students with the greatest needs and fewest resources in Los Angeles with homework help and high-quality enrichment, academic and recreation opportunities they may not otherwise receive. The program is free of cost to students. Among the unique opportunities provided to nearly 300,000 children in Los Angeles over 23 years by LA’s BEST, this is the first time the organization has sent students abroad.

“LA’s BEST After School Enrichment Program provides unlimited opportunities for our students to have experiences and success in a wide variety of areas. In all my years as an LAUSD administrator, I have never seen an opportunity so extraordinary, or of this magnitude, afforded to an elementary school student,” said Principal Lynn Andrews of Allesandro Elementary.

The eight students and their chaperones will return to Los Angeles on May 14th, 2011.