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Nearly 100 third-graders, many of them from low-income families, erupted in screams during an assembly at a Tustin elementary school Monday.

They had just learned that each of them would be getting a free bicycle.

Jeane Thorman Elementary School was chosen by a San Diego cycling nonprofit — Bikes for Kids — after the students won an essay contest explaining what “empathy” means. But the extent of their reward was a secret until the assembly.

Initially, just four of the students were told they had won a bike. Then four more were told they’d won because of their writing.

Then — voila! — the curtain was pulled back to reveal a stage filled with bicycles.

“Everybody’s going to win a bike,” exclaimed Bill Pollakov, the nonprofit’s founder.

Some students screamed and others clapped their hands over the mouths.

“When that thing opened, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” one grinning third-grader said.

None of the students, or even the teachers, knew that was about to happen, according to Principal Deanna Parks.

“We didn’t just go for the top essay,” Parks said. “It was really less about the essay; it was more about this incredible gift.”

Bikes for Kids focuses on low-income communities where children’s families often haven’t been able to afford a bike. The Tustin students were also given helmets.