The spirit of the season is alive and well at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School in Antigonish.
Through their annual Christmas Joy initiative, students, staff and teachers – with support from friends, families and the community – collected more than $7,800 in toys and monetary donations for local families.
“We would like to say a huge thank you to our staff and students for taking on this school project every year,” teacher-coordinator Lauri Shaw said.
Before they headed on vacation for the holidays, participants in the initiative turned over their collection to representatives of the Monsignor Hugh MacPherson Council of the Knights of Columbus toy drive.
“This is fantastic,” drive representative Clarence Deyoung said when organizers provided him with word of the Regional’s successful effort, Dec. 17, which served as Christmas Joy day at the school.
Deyoung and several Knights were visiting the Regional on that day to pick up the goodies.
“It has become a tradition here at the Regional,” Shaw said of Christmas Joy, which was launched more than 25 years ago by now-retired teacher Theresa Thompson.
In an email, she noted the initiative – one led by homeroom teachers, happens “because of the generosity, compassion and support of our school community.”
“It is a wonderful service-learning project for our students and meets an important need in our community at this time of year,” she added.
Shaw noted she and fellow teacher-coordinator Danielle Boyd-Farrell became involved three years ago because “everyone wanted to make sure that the tradition would continue.”
“It gives us an opportunity to help our community and not just people in our school,” student Molly Vokey said.
As the season approaches, homeroom teachers read a two-page letter Thompson received years ago from a mother whose family benefitted from the Christmas Joy project.
“It was really special,” Lydia Shaw-Peters said of hearing that message.
As part of the process, teachers ask students to bring in unwrapped gifts or money to purchase them.
Each homeroom buys gifts for their ‘family,’ providing one or two bigger gifts for each child. They purchase age-appropriate items with information provided – no names – by the Knights.
As part of the process, many classes have established a tradition of students heading out to local stores to make purchases for their families.
“She told us that it was her way of paying it forward, and she encouraged us to do the same,” Vokey said, reflecting on a trip to Walmart a couple years ago with her Grade 10 classmates.
When they reached the checkout, they realized they were $40 short, but that woman in the line-up behind them paid the difference.
“The little things are what it is all about,” student Isabelle Lawrence said, describing one of the important message participants receive from Christmas Joy.
She noted many families “feel a lot of pressure” during the Christmas season, when it comes to purchasing gifts, so this initiative is able to help in some way.
Student Wamfu Kumdoung said the effort, through the Knights’ toy drive helps prevent families from feeling “left out” during the holiday season.
It is also serves as a reminder that people are in need at this time of the year.
“We take it for granted,” student Maddie Ehler said of receiving everything on our gift list.
Her wise words are just one of the lessons learned during the Christmas Joy; many of which stay with participants long after their years at the Regional.
To illustrate that effect, Shaw noted a message she received this year from Regional graduate Logan MacInnis, who asked where he could send a donation to Christmas Joy.
“This is what service learning in high school is all about – developing an awareness of the needs of others, taking action and instilling a sense of responsibility to one's community that lasts long after a student graduates,” Shaw wrote.
As Deyoung and his fellow Knights left the school, with packages in hand, the volunteer left the students and teachers with a reminder.
“When you are opening your presents Christmas morning, remember how you have been able to help others have that same experience,” he said.