Christmas came early to the students of Blair Early Childhood Center as Santa went from classroom to classroom handing out clothes, books, and toys. The gifts were made possible by Direct Effect Charities, which partners with CPS to bring holiday joy to thousands of children in need.
“I wish everyone who bought a gift could be here to watch the kids open it,” said Karen Bryar, principal at Blair. “The kids get so excited, and they are so appreciative of everything they’re given. It makes me cry. I don’t even need Christmas for myself after that.”
This gift drive was part of Direct Effect’s Letters to Santa program, which connects CPS schools with donors in and beyond Chicago. Blair Early Childhood Center was sponsored by employees from CPS Central Office, who have participated in the Letters to Santa program for the past nine years.
Blair, a special education school in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood, serves 150 students between the ages of 3 and 6. Many of the students have multiple disabilities, which made writing a letter to Santa challenging in many cases. But the dedicated staff at Blair – which includes several full-time nurses, therapists, and social workers, along with 23 classroom teachers and more than 30 paraprofessionals – took the time to help each student create a special holiday message.
“Many of our students aren’t able to write,” said Bryar, “so they decorated their letters with drawings while their teachers helped with the words.”
Students asked Santa for everything from coats and hats to books, games and toys, and each wish was eagerly granted by one of CPS’ Central Office employees. Once word went out about the gift drive, the letters to Santa disappeared from CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s office within a couple of days. Gifts were purchased, wrapped and returned to the CEO’s office before being transported to Blair in time for the school’s holiday party on December 10.
The party began with a performance that had been planned by several Blair employees, including music teacher J. Cunningham. “I helped pick out some Christmas songs, and our kindergarten and first-grade students did a great job performing them,” she said. “Nearly all of the students had worked on the songs in their music classes, so they were eager to sing along.”
After the singing, students returned to their classrooms to await the arrival of Santa, who went from room to room handing out individual presents. Kelly Connolly, a preschool teacher, described the opening of gifts as very exciting. “It was so great to see the kids get what they wanted,” she said. “We had helped them write their letters; so we knew exactly what they were hoping for, and it was fun to see their faces when they got it.”
Direct Effect Charities works exclusively with CPS to help those children who are most in need. In 2012, donors from around the country answered the children’s letters, bringing joy to 8,600 CPS students in 13 schools. Direct Effect also manages Chicago Kids Closet, which distributes clothing and coats to students in need, as well as the Build a Backpack program, where donors provide students with their necessary school supplies prior to the first day of classes.
“We have always worked exclusively with CPS because we know there is a great need,” said Michelle DiGiacomo, executive director for Direct Effect Charities. “Our mission is hands-on, bringing people as close to the child they are helping as possible.”
DiGiacomo started the organization in 2001 with her now late husband, Paul Fitzgerald. And with the help of major donors like Crate & Barrel, the Chicago Bears, the Madden Corporation, as well as thousands of individual donors and volunteers, she has continued its mission since his passing four years ago. “We give people the opportunity to provide tangible gifts to children in need,” she said. “It’s so much more gratifying than writing a check to a large charity and not really knowing where the money is going.”
The gift drive at Blair Early Childhood Center was a perfect example of the “direct effect” that such contributions can have on a child. Principal Karen Bryar ranks it among her favorite days of the year, as it allows children with severe disabilities to have a typical holiday experience. “Most of our kids can’t get to the malls to see Santa,” she said. “And even if they do, people often stare or shy away from them because of their disabilities. Here, there are no boundaries. Santa isn’t bothered by their limitations or their equipment. He gets right down on the floor and interacts with them. We call that doing things the Blair way.”
Christian Avila, a 6-year-old kindergarten student who was lucky enough to be chosen as Santa’s helper, enjoyed giving out gifts nearly as much as he liked receiving them. “I was happy and excited,” he said. “I liked giving out the presents.”
“I was really excited,” said Christian about the Christmas party and the Captain America costume he received from Santa. “I wanted to scream and shout, ‘wahoo!’”