Photo by Kelly White
Dominika Bryniarska (at left), 15, of Oak Lawn, and Natalia Tylka, 15, of Oak Lawn, wrap gifts together during Oak Lawn Community High School's Operation Santa gift wrapping party on Dec. 20 at the school in Oak Lawn.
'Tis the season of joy and giving and Oak Lawn Community High School students are standing strongly by that view. For the 13th consecutive year, students from all grade levels participated in Operation Santa Claus this December.
Operation Santa Claus is similar to the Angel Trees commonly seen at local shopping malls during the holiday season, according to Operation Santa Claus organizer and Oak Lawn Community High School math teacher Ellen Kruger.
“We adopt families from the Oak Lawn High School community who demonstrate a need for assistance, as determined by the counselors and social workers,” Kruger said.
In order to become a part of the project’s wish list, every family participating had to have at least one or more students attending Oak Lawn Community High School, with ages ranging anywhere from freshmen to seniors.
“I used to get families referred by Oak Lawn Family Services, but as the years went by, there was such great need within the Oak Lawn High School community that I was able to fill all of the spots from referrals from our counselors and social workers,” Kruger said. “This year we adopted more people than ever before with 40 individuals from 11 different families.”
“I like the ability to help the less fortunate families of Oak Lawn,” said Jasmine Cates, 17, of Oak Lawn.
Candy canes hung on Christmas trees located in the student and staff cafeterias at the school, 9400 Southwest Highway, for one week, each containing a gift tag identifying a person, their age, and desired wish/need. Wishes included anything ranging from clothing, gas/grocery gift cards, and toys in addition to a few specific requests. In order to participate in the program, students and staff chose a candy cane at random, purchased the gift or gifts with their own money, and returned it to the school unwrapped.
The gifts were then wrapped during a wrapping party, hosted by Kruger, and the 20 students on the Operation Santa Claus school committee on Dec. 20. From there, the gifts are taken on the school’s Spartan minibus and hand-delivered to the families in need by staff and students.
Students reported to enjoy the giving project.
“I like that it is a fun and fast way for everyone to contribute to those in need,” said Nicole Arias, 17, of Oak Lawn.
“I like how you get a look at how others are living who are less fortunate, and you have the opportunity to help them,” said Ansam Abdeljaber, 17, of Oak Lawn.
“This is my first year helping, and I am really glad to be able to help those who need it the most,” said Peggy Fritz, 17, of Oak Lawn.
Since 2005, during the holiday season, Kruger and members of Oak Lawn Community High School have collected over 3,140 gifts and over $13,000 in cash and gift cards for Oak Lawn residents, according to Oak Lawn Community High School’s Assistant Principal Marcus Wargin.
“Operation Santa Claus amazes me every year,” Wargin said. “Our students, staff, and families step up to help those in need, and bring joy to our community families during the holiday season. Ellen (Kruger) goes above and beyond to organize this event each year, not out of obligation, but out of genuine kindness. I am proud to work with her and all of our stakeholders who take time out of their days to support this cause. It is events like these that constantly remind me of why Oak Lawn Community High School is more than just a school. We are a family and I am grateful to be part of it every day.”
The project originally sparked at the high school after Kruger participated in a similar project through the University Recreation Center at James Madison University. She then adapted it for Oak Lawn Community High School.
“I feel this program brings students and staff together to help those within our own school community,” Kruger said. “We see firsthand the effect these donations have on the families who attend our school. They participate in a program that gives back to the community. The students who gain the most are those who stay around after the wrap party to load the gifts into the cars of the families who they are being donated to. They see the appreciation and gratefulness first hand.”