2017 #MyGivingStory Award Winner

By Gina Reider

I am a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Sabish Middle School in Fond du Lac, WI, and I am so proud of my students!! Just before Christmas five years ago, I saw a video from WestJet where they provided surprise St. Nick gifts to some of their passengers when they arrived at their destination. I thought it was a beautiful reminder of the spirit of the season and shared it with my students. They noticed that the guy who received socks and underwear was just as happy as the family who received a big screen TV. Yes! That is what I wanted them to understand; it’s not all about the gift. You can even have a “warm, fuzzy” feeling inside because you gave, not because you received. Many said they had never felt that.

As I cried in front of them (yes, all three classes--still do every year), I told them why: not everyone has the same type of Christmases I had been blessed to have in my life. I wanted them to understand that although the holidays are supposed to be a special time of the year, this is often not the case. I shared with them how over the years, some of my students have told me they do not look forward to the holiday season because their parents are divorced and there are sometimes disagreements about where the kids should spend time. There have been times where too much drinking and/or family situations have had a negative effect on the kids. The economy and financial hardship have also affected many families. Although the holidays are usually a time for family, some are not able to be together.

After all the talking and crying, I said, “I wish we could do that for people.” One of my students said, “Why can’t we?” I said, “Yeah! Why can’t we?” We created a plan using communication, collaboration, and critical thinking; I ran it past my principal, and we were off and running. We chose just one school that first year based on their poverty level. This will be our fifth year as Sabish Elves, and I am proud to say that we have grown the project to help at five local schools and that ALL 142 seventh graders at Sabish are elves. It is important to note that many of my students are in the same financial need as those we help; they went to those schools, know the need, and want to make it a special holiday.

This is how it works:

Goal: To help kindergarten children at local elementary schools have a joyful holiday no matter what economic status, cultural background, or religious beliefs they may have.

What we do:

Write letters to local businesses, clubs, family, friends, and neighbors for donations to fund the project

Set up the “North Pole” in a back room at school

Skype the kindergarten classes from the “North Pole” dressed as elves to ask students what they need and want (many need coats, hats/mitten, boots, clothes, school supplies, etc.)

Make a list and sort it

Meet at Walmart and Shopko to shop as a group after school

Wrap the gifts so that each student receives three presents (have to keep it “equal”--”Let’s be honest, Mrs. Rieder, we still count and compare and we’re in seventh grade.”)

Deliver gifts to these elementary schools as a surprise right before winter break starts

We have made memories for over 460 kindergarten and seventh-grade students so far; this year will create those lifelong memories for 142 seventh graders and over 200 kindergarteners. Since inception, 800 kids have been involved, and we have raised almost $14,000.

This is an incredible lesson in giving, and I know it is changing the lives of my students. That first year, we took longer than expected with delivery and were running (literally) back to school as the bell rang at the end of the day. One boy who wasn’t too excited about this project when it was first discussed came running up to me and said, “Mrs. Rieder, thank you for today! It was the best day of my life! You know that feeling you said we’d get inside from giving? Well, I got it today! Thanks!” This year a fellow teacher came up to me with tears in her eyes because a student she had last year that is very shy just lit up as she told about her experience today as an “elf.” Our students all need to use communication skills because sometimes a kindergartener doesn’t even speak so the elves need to use their skills to draw the student out or get the information through yes/no questions. I love seeing the shy students shine with the little ones.

It is a pleasure to not only organize this project but to contribute. My husband and I (and most of both of our families) have donated since the beginning. Local business and families have made this event not only possible but to grow to the size it is this year. The lifelong memories we are making will surely inspire my students to continue giving as they grow up. I am so proud of my students and our community for supporting us!! View a few examples of this project here.

Written in support of Sabish Elf Project c/o Sabish Middle School