Among the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s often difficult to spend time together.
But for at least a decade now, Mahomet-Seymour students have come together with one mission on their mind: to make sure that when Christmas morning rolls around, children in the school district have presents under their tree and food on their table.
Behind the scenes orchestrating projects and coordinating gift wish lists are Mahomet-Seymour teachers, coaches, sponsors and guidance counselors, who act as Santa’s helpers.
Mahomet resident Carolyn Williams has helped with efforts to raise funds for gifts since 2009 when her son was in Lynne Dunn’s fourth-grade classroom.
Williams and Dunn came together with visions of gingerbread houses dancing around in their head, but decided to turn the craft into something that would impact others.
Prior to retiring in 2013, Dunn allotted classroom time for students to get together in groups and decorate gingerbread houses that were auctioned off during the lunch hour. Parents provided the pre-made houses and decorations.
Families also provided baked goods to sell during the lunch hour to raise additional funds.
When Dunn retired, she handed the project off to fellow fourth-grade teacher Kara Allison, whose class raised an all-time gingerbread house raffle record with $247.06 last week.
Williams said year-after-year she enjoys watching the students get excited about the amount they will raise for other children.
“They get really excited to see how high that total goes,” she said. “That motivation of knowing they can buy more things for that kid. They really do get very excited about giving more and buying more for others.”
Being in the presence of candy canes, marshmallows and sprinkles galore is enough to get any child excited, but a few minutes into getting into their decorating teams, students also get excited about the process of decorating a gingerbread house with their classmates.
Williams always begins the gingerbread decorating with a lesson about how to think outside the box. She shows students a gingerbread house she decorated at home, showing them that they can make Christmas light bulbs out of gumdrops or use candy canes to make a sidewalk.
Allison, who builds each school year upon learning about community, reminds students prior to beginning that everyone has good ideas, that everyone should be a good listener and that all ideas need to be respected and incorporated.
This year’s gingerbread houses included Santa coming down the chimney, pillowy marshmallow landscapes and a house just for girls decorated with pink.
One group of girls decided to make a replica of Snoopy sitting on his rooftop.
“We didn’t have a Snoopy, so they had to figure out how they could make Snoopy out of what we had,” Allison said. “It’s problem-solving.”
Making the gingerbread houses allows students time to use their creative imaginations in a way that the children said they don’t usually have time for.
“I like to do crafts, but I don’t do them often because I just don’t have time to,” said Jeremiah Sinclair.
“It’s fun because you can do anything with your imagination.”
Another group of four boys, who Allison identified as her “Pokemon” kids, used a gingerbread train and small village to tell the story of how happy helpers made sure Santa’s toys arrived to children in time for the holidays after the train ran off the tracks.
“I didn’t expect them to come up with a story,” Allison said.
Allison said the gingerbread project really helps some of the students come out of their shells.
One boy, who doesn’t talk much, became very excited about creating the people who were on their way to help Santa’s train. Another student who is an English language learner was able to communicate with his peers through working on tasks together.
“It really helps some of them come out of their shell because there’s not a right or wrong, it’s not a competition of who is better,” Williams said. “It’s ‘Look at what we can do with this!’ And then everyone always goes, ‘That’s great!’”
Williams loves to listen to the student’s conversation as she delivers royal icing to each table.
“The world is such a ‘give me, give me, give me,’ world. It’s nice to see these students think about giving to other and buying for others. It’s not all about them,” she said.
Fourth-grade student Katie Atteberry said, “I think it’s cool that people will actually use money to buy these (gingerbread houses) and then all the money goes to help other people.”
Tristan Farm added, “I feel like it is a good thing to do around Christmastime and it is a good thing that you can do anytime.”
Allison’s class also works with Lincoln Trail Social Worker Cynthia Johnson to provide gifts for one family through a classroom Angel Tree.
This year the class is buying for a family with a 3-year old girl, an 8-year old boy, and a 17-year old girl.
Students look at the child’s wish-list and bring in wrapped or unwrapped presents to place under the tree. Allison said some students even stay inside during their recess to wrap presents.
“I tell my class it’s not about what we get, it’s about what we give,” Allison said. “We don’t do a student gift exchange, and I don’t even want them to buy things for me. It’s what we do for people.”
But providing gifts for approximately 65 children each year does not just rest on the shoulders of one fourth grade class.
The Mahomet-Seymour Future Business Leaders of America chapter provides students with a chance to give provide new and gently used toys, hats, gloves, scarves and mittens to be distributed within Mahomet-Seymour schools and Mahomet Helping Hands through drop boxes located at each elementary school.
The Mahomet-Seymour basketball team, the Mahomet-Seymour student council and the Interact Club alongside teachers throughout the district also donate toys, gift cards, money and time to ensure that those in need within the community have what they need.
A few years ago, Lincoln Trail classrooms were able to provide more assistance to the Christmas giving. Dunn’s class bake sale and a fifth-grade candy gram fundraiser were canceled with the rollout of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move! Initiative”, which regulated the sale of sweets during lunch hour.
Class field trips into Champaign to purchase presents were also canceled when the district made some financial cuts.
The Mahomet-Seymour High School Econ class also changed the way the Cookie Company requirement functioned with Obama’s lunchroom changes in 2014. Prior to the mandate, the Econ class sold cookies during lunch hour and kept the profits of the company for the students.
To align with new standards, the Cookie Company began to sell their products before and after school, but also decided to donate funds they raised to help with Christmas gifts for students throughout the district.
This fall the Econ class raised $4,500 to help with the district’s needs.
District social workers also said Mahomet-Seymour residents and churches also reach out to the district to help.
With various members of the church involved in the school district, Grace has taken their mission of building community to reach community into the Christmas season by working with school social workers and the Mahomet Area Youth Club to provide resources to fill holiday requests.
“This vision has had us take up special offerings to resource our local school social workers,” Grace Pastor Andrew Powell said. “We have also purchased gift cards for basic needs, food and holiday needs, as well as done gift drives, food drives, and cost, gloves and hat drives during winter months.”
Mahomet-Seymour Junior High Social Worker Jill Kyle said that families generally contact the district for help, and other times school social workers will reach out to a family who is in a difficult situation.
While Allison’s class does purchase specific gifts for specific children, social workers also want to give parents the experience of purchasing for their family.
“If items are given, then we distribute those to the families,” Mahomet-Seymour High School Social Worker Erin Graham said. “We work to empower our families, so whenever possible, we try to provide gift cards so they can use the money the best way for their family.”
“We hope these gifts and experiences will bring joy to our families during this holiday season,” she continued. “And that they will feel supported and empowered by their community and neighbors.”