Alaa Kort (from left), 17, of Oak Lawn, and Sofia Serna, 18, of Oak Lawn, were part of Oak Lawn Community High School's Operation Santa Claus.
By Kelly White
The holidays may feel a little different, and this year, more than ever, students at Oak Lawn Community High School are happy to bring holiday cheer into the lives of others.
Through the school’s annual Operation Santa Claus event, donations of gifts were given, wrapped and delivered to families in need within the local community.
“ I really enjoy witnessing our school-community get together to support local families who are in need,” said Fares Marzoukl, 18, of Oak Lawn. “It’s especially uplifting to see this sort of communal altruism blossoming despite a pandemic that caused many families in our area to struggle financially. Personally, it was humbling to see the modest donations these families requested, yet I’m also proud to see the many gifts our community members contributed. I’m glad Operation Santa Claus and the many contributors are able to help alleviate some of the hardships these families face, even if it’s a little bit.”
The project is organized by Ellen Kruger, a math teacher at Oak Lawn Community High School.
“ I love the ability to give back to the community and help the most vulnerable,” Kruger said. “Children have struggled substantially during the pandemic, not being able to go to school or have their normal social lives, I would hate for Christmas to be taken away from them as well. I love mobilizing the community because when everyone comes together and pools their resources, amazing things can happen.”
This marked the 16th year of the event that Kruger has organized this event at the high school at 9400 Southwest Highway.
Kruger carried on her family’s tradition of adopting a family during the Christmas season while attending College at James Madison University through a program called Warm a Winter Wish. She took that program and adopted it for Oak Lawn Community High School with Operation Santa Claus. For the project, she collaborates with a committee of students from the school’s Cross Countries Rapid Response Team (CCRRT), who work as the Operation Santa Claus committee, led by OLCHS science instructor Chris Repa.
"Now, more than ever, people are hurting, right here in our home communities,” Repa said. “Those of us than can give, need to give. Not because it is the Christmas season; not because it makes us feel good; but, because it is the right thing to do. Helping others is always the right thing to do. Operation Santa Claus does just that, and Cross Countries is very excited to be a part of such an amazing program.”
“Operation Santa Claus is such a light in our community, especially now,” said Sofia Serna, 18, of Oak Lawn. “So many families have been hit very hard by this pandemic, and the fact that we’ve had the opportunity to make this weird and unpredictable holiday season just a little bit brighter for them means a lot.”
During Operation Santa Claus, students and staff members adopted a total of 16 families’ Christmas wish-lists from the high school community who demonstrate a need for assistance, as determined by the counselors and social workers.
In order to become a part of the project’s wish-list, every family participating had to have at least one or more student attending Oak Lawn Community High School, with ages ranging anywhere from freshmen to seniors.
Though the outcome was the same, the process this year was a little different due to the pandemic, Kruger explained.
“This year the program was entirely virtual,” Kruger said. “Many staff members have adopted an individual or entire family and will purchase all of their gifts. The rest of the families’ wishes are on an Amazon Wish List, Target Registry, and Sign Up Genius list. These links will be available to staff, students, and the community. Gifts will mostly be purchased online and shipped directly to the school.”
This was the first year that Kruger allowed the wish-lists to be available to the entire Oak Lawn community, as well, to help with the purchasing of gifts. Many staff members also formed their own small team of family and friends to purchase items for the families.
Families’ wish-lists included, but were not limited to: gift cards for gas and groceries, toiletry baskets, clothing, and gifts for children age 18 and younger.
“Families involved in this program struggle in a normal economic climate so the pandemic has hit them especially hard,” Kruger said. “They are struggling just to pay rent, bills, and put food on the table.”
Following social distancing guidelines, the gifts were then wrapped during a wrapping party, hosted by Kruger, and the 20 students on the Operation Santa Claus school committee on Friday. From there, the gifts are taken on a school’s Spartan minibus and delivered to the families by staff. Families also had the option to pick up the gifts at the school.
“Operation Santa Claus is an opportunity for students, staff, and families to support our own community,” Marcus Wargin , assistant principal at Oak Lawn Community High School, said. “It is has been a very difficult year for several families in the area and we are hoping that together we can make the difference in the lives of some of those families. The Oak Lawn Community High School community is one of giving, one of support, one of togetherness, and one of kindness. We have always looked out for each other and we will continue to raise each other up.”