What was your favorite book as a child? Do you remember? I vividly recall the sheer joy of making it all the way through Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat for the very first time. I was hooked! Reading opened a whole new world – an exclusive world where only other ‘readers’ could go. In grade school I discovered Nancy Drew. I wanted to BE Nancy Drew. I was extremely disappointed that there were no mysteries to solve in my quiet suburban neighborhood (and believe me, I tried to find them), so I had to settle for living vicariously through the adventures that captured my young imagination. I can’t remember not having books in our home, and recall the first book fair my mom took me to where I got to revel in the vast selection of books piled high on tables and carefully select two of them to take home as my very own. Over time, I built a sizeable library and even put pockets in the backs of my books with cards so my friends could ‘check them out’. (OK – so I’m revealing my nerdiness as well as my age. And I don’t recall anyone ever actually checking them out.)
I guess my love of books is one of the reasons I’ve been so drawn to our A Visit from St. Nicholas program where each year we deliver back packs stuffed with books and toys to children in our most challenged elementary schools. It’s always so heartwarming to see kid’s faces light up and especially to see some of the kids that can’t wait to crack open a book and begin reading.
Last year I visited Windy Hill Elementary School with my colleague, Lynn Mora. We went with a videographer from PGA TOUR Entertainment who was capturing footage from the event to help us better tell our story of what this visit means to the children. After the visit, Lynn and I met with the principal, Sharon Sanders and teacher, Jennifer Turner to learn more about the children who attend the school. We both fought tears and lumps in our throats by the time we left after hearing story after story of the challenges these little students face each day. For some, the breakfast and lunch they eat at school are the only meals they have for the day, and on the weekend, there may be no food in their homes. The problem is so enormous that the teachers opened a food pantry at school to help their families in need. Some of the children are homeless. One mother put her child on a city bus from downtown to send him to school because they have no home. Other families are struggling hard to make ends meet. Because a parent may be working two jobs, older siblings are watching out for the students and have even come on the parent’s behalf for parent night.
We weren’t the only ones who were touched. A volunteer reader left the classroom in tears after one of the children refused to open their gift. They wanted to bring it home so they would have something to open on Christmas morning. In another class a little girl had a teary meltdown and Ms. Sanders went to comfort her. Later we learned that this child had some challenges and the other students didn’t always treat her kindly. She was simply overwhelmed that people would come to her school and ‘be nice’ to her.
Unfortunately, this school is not unique. The challenges facing these students are occurring in schools all over the First Coast. We reach as many challenged schools each year as we are financially able. We couldn’t do any of this without the support of many wonderful businesses and foundations in our community. Still, we do need more help. Somewhere in another school, one we couldn’t get to this year, is a child or likely many children who won’t have a gift, who doesn’t have a book of their own, who won’t have a special experience like A Visit from St. Nicholas brings. This makes me sad.
In a time where many kid’s ‘list for Santa’ includes Ipods and Wiis, we are always amazed to see children jump and giggle with joy when they open packages of simple toys like crazy teeth and jump ropes. It takes so little to put smiles on the faces of these kids and the reward….well, there’s just nothing like it.
I’d like to invite you to see the video filmed in the school during the visit I attended last year. I shared it with my daughter a few weeks ago and told her about what I’d experienced. She sat rocking her little 6-month old daughter and tears rolled down her cheeks. It was a moment for gratitude. A moment of knowing how blessed we really are. Of knowing that this little one has a roof over her head. That she already has books and toys in her home. And knowing that we need to do our part to help those who don’t.