Students at the Concord Regional Technical Center at Concord High School didn’t have to go the mall to see Santa Claus this year, unless of course they were compelled to enjoy such Yuletide traditions as screaming toddlers, swerving lines of impatient shoppers and the sweet sounds of holiday Muzak.
For a more serene Santa scene, though, they had only to glance at the faces in their own classroom.
Students in Sharon Bean’s Health Science and Technology classes at the CRTC joined forces with Home Instead Senior Care of Manchester to ensure that a faction of the population wasn’t forgotten during the holidays, collecting almost 100 gifts for the elderly as part of the Be a Santa to a Senior project.
Home Instead is expecting to collect 300 gifts as part of the project, according to Director of Community Relations Pattie Hayes, meaning nearly a third of the total collected items in the region will come from the little elves in the halls of Concord High School.
“Pattie does a really good job when she comes in of talking about how typically when you think about Christmas, it’s about kids and toys, but something you don’t always think about is older people and what they do on Christmas,” Bean said. “You just kind of take for granted that they have families. We talked about how people can be alone and what that must be like, people that don’t have resources and family, and it makes you want to help them. You say, ‘What can I do? What can I bring?’ ”
Bean’s students have been bringing plenty since she first partnered with Hayes on the project four years ago, as they routinely collect a good percentage of the total gifts. Students are given paper ornaments with categories on them and choose a gift – usually in the $5–10 range – to donate. Categories included “holiday celebrations,” “comfy cozy,” and “big kid games and toys.”
Hayes arrived at the CRTC last Monday afternoon to pick up the gifts, with the students helping to load her sleigh – a white Cadillac in the Concord High School parking lot.
“Basically the intent for Home Instead is to help eliminate the loneliness factor that really can be exacerbated at the holidays,” Hayes said. “It’s that important interconnection between emotional well-being and physical well-being, that when folks become isolated and they don’t have that social connection anymore, there can be a decline in emotional well-being, and that can lead to a decline in physical well-being. For overall wellness, we want to make sure people stay connected with one another, and this is one way Home Instead Senior Care addresses that is through our Be a Santa to a Senior program.”
Interacting with seniors is nothing new for Bean’s students – her classes routinely make treks to Presidential Oaks that have included impromptu dance performances and, last year, Christmas carols sung to the residents. But being given the opportunity to play Santa Claus – sadly, it’s assumed, minus the opportunity to polish off a plate of cookies – put a different spin on the whole thing.
Concord High School senior Mariah Caines – proudly rocking a Santa hat on the day gifts were picked up – was selected as Bean’s head elf for the project, coordinating the efforts of handing out ornaments to students and organizing the gifts. She purchased two gifts herself and said another classmate donated three. Of the roughly 75 students in three classes asked to participate, Caines can’t remember anyone that didn’t take part.
“A lot of people were kind of surprised at first, like what do you mean senior – senior students or senior people?” Caines admitted. “You just don’t think about it and you’re surprised because a lot of people don’t have family on Christmas. A lot of people are alone, so you just want to help them and make their day.”
Whether or not students tunneled in through a chimney remains unclear, but even a veteran of the program like Bean was surprised at how quickly the presents multiplied in the corner of her classroom.
“It was just magical how all these gifts just kept appearing and appearing, and suddenly we just had this mound,” Bean said. “I think it was just the efforts of everybody involved. One person can create this huge impact on a community.”
The gifts are wrapped by Home Instead and delivered to seniors who are usually expecting only a normal delivery from Meals on Wheels or another similar organization. The students don’t get to be there for the official unwrapping, but the project’s impact is brighter than Rudolph’s nose.
“Sometimes people feel like you have to be attached to it and see it to the end, but it’s just as rewarding to load Pattie’s little sleigh with all those presents. It’s just the sense of knowing where the gifts are going,” Bean said. “Pattie really helped paint a picture when she said, ‘Imagine you are getting Meals on Wheels and you get the same driver every day when you get lunch but this time instead they bring a decorative, festive bag you weren’t expecting.’ And to know it came from a high school student, something thoughtful, that somebody thought of them, as a total surprise. It’s totally unexpected for the people that get it.”