Elms students organized Christmas gift sponsorships and toy drives to benefit needy children in Holyoke and Chicopee.

Elms students organized Christmas gift sponsorships and toy drives for needy children

Elms students organized gift sponsorships for needy children served by Homework House in Holyoke and a toy drive to benefit homeless children in Chicopee.

Students Go 'Full Elf' to Bring Kids Joy

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Children the world over are making their lists, checking them twice and mailing them off to the North Pole. But families in need might not find gifts under the tree on Christmas morning. It’s a sad reality, and one that the Elms College community is working to change. To that end, Elms students have gone ”full elf” this season, organizing gift sponsorships and toy drives to make sure local needy children will have presents for a joyful holiday.

In one project, the campus came together to sponsor 120 children at Homework House of Holyoke, Mass., to bring gifts to each child the organization supports.

Homework House was established by the Sisters of St. Joseph to provide free after-school tutoring and mentoring for local children who are at risk for academic failure and dropping out of school. Services are available for children in grades K-6, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or gender.

Holyoke has a number of families that cannot afford to buy their children Christmas presents. “The idea of children not getting any presents for Christmas was absolutely heartbreaking to me,” said Julia Engel, a junior nursing student who was instrumental in the effort.

She and her classmates - including her brother, senior nursing major Thomas Engel - held a 50/50 raffle to help subsidize the toy drive. Julia herself drummed up 25 more sponsors by personally calling family and friends.

The effort started in the Student Government Association, of which Thomas and Julia are members. “The SGA sponsors a few families in need each holiday season, so I asked them if they wanted to sponsor any of the families from Homework House,” said Teresa Winters-Dunn, dean of students at Elms and also a member of the Homework House board of directors.

“When we heard that there were multiple kids needing gifts, we knew we had to step up and do something,” Thomas said. “So we sprang into action, got the word out, and helped as many as we could.”

Then students started sponsoring some children on their own, and staff and faculty pitched in, too. In the end, every Homework House child had a sponsor. Once the sponsorships were secured, SGA members started shopping.

“We are given the children's genders and ages to use when choosing presents,” said Regina DiGiovanni, senior nursing student and SGA executive board member. “After that, we wrap the presents and they are delivered to the families to place under the tree for the children to unwrap Christmas morning.”

In a similar spirit, the Student Nurses Association held a separate toy drive this season to benefit 170 homeless children in Chicopee. The need came to light because the children are served by Elms’ caRe vaN mobile nursing unit. The SNA organized a fundraiser by selling tickets to Holyoke Mall's Magical Night of Giving and invited toy donations under a tree in the School of Nursing.

The toys will be distributed Dec. 13 at a party for the children. Santa will be in attendance to pass the toys out, said Rachel Lehouillier, who ran the drive with her SNA co-president and fellow senior Shirley Ryan. “I believe that this will really brighten the children’s Christmas season. It will be such a rewarding experience to see the children with Santa and with their new toys.”

In separate efforts aimed at helping both children and adults, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) also has been busy over the past several weeks: The athletes collected over 850 canned goods and donated them to the Gray House just before Thanksgiving; held a teddy bear drive for Shriners Hospital and collected over 50 stuffed animals that were delivered there last week; and organized a coat and blanket drive, in which over 50 coats and blankets for the Gray House and Lorraine's Soup Kitchen.

With the college’s emphasis on social justice, community aid projects like these come naturally. “It encourages us as students to be aware of the [underserved] that are in our own communities,” Julia said. “Social action does not have to go any further than your own community. There are endless ways to help people right here in Western Massachusetts that should not go unrecognized.”