BARNEGAT – It was a regular school day earlier this month when 25 Barnegat High School students commandeered shopping carts at the Manahawkin Target store. They came armed – with holiday wish lists for local families.
The Rotary Club of Barnegat created its Annual Elf Program when the chapter opened seven years ago. The group holds fundraisers and works with the school district to make Christmas a special time for as many Barnegat children as possible.
“Between our 50/50 raffle and our pictures with Santa, we made almost $5,000 towards our Elf Program,” Wayne Eslinger, the local Rotary Club president, shared. “We actually had other fundraisers that allowed us to spend $6,258 to help 25 families and 95 kids.”
The Barnegat Township School District played a twofold role when it came to the Elf Program. First, Michele Cucinotta of the district acted as the community liaison and solicited wish lists from families in need of assistance with gifts during the holidays.
Cucinotta addressed privacy concerns by replacing names with identifying numbers before passing on responses from families. Rotary Club members helped out with the Elf shopping spree in limited roles as Barnegat High School students assumed the exciting job of fulfilling gift suggestions.
“We had kids from the Interact Club, as well as students in behavioral disabilities and multiple disabilities classes at Target with us,” said Linda Davenport, a paraprofessional at Barnegat High School. “They had fun and also learned things in the process.”
Davenport was not the only school district staff member who attended the trip to Target. BD teacher Dave Simmler, and Kevin Peters, who teaches a self-contained classroom for students with multiple disabilities, also joined. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Latwis stopped in as well.
Students were allocated an assigned amount to spend on each child. They searched for bargains to keep to their budgets. The experience with the gift of giving seemed to bring on a sense of compassion, according to Davenport. Kids from different classes also bonded together to reach a common goal.
Davenport and Peters act as co-advisors of the Interact Club. They can’t say enough about the goodwill of the student participants.
“My Interact kids have been a big help in the multiple disabilities classes over the years,” Davenport added.
Interact clubs throughout the country receive support from rotary clubs. The intent is to promote the “development of leadership skills as well as the discovery of power of Service Above Self.”
While some students signed up for the Elf Program to secure community service hours, all seemed pretty pleased with themselves as they hit the registers. Carts laden with character and team-themed apparel, together with games and popular toys, made up the bulk of the purchases.
Other items appeared more practical, with bags and bags of new comforters set to warm up at least one family’s home. Students turned to school advisors and Rotary members when they weren’t exactly sure about some of the things on the wish lists.
Suzie Block serves as the Rotary Club’s liaison to the Interact Club. During the Elf Shopping Spree, she joined the students searching for gifts to offer them help.
“I think a lot of lessons came out of the whole experience,” said Block. “I learned that as I wandered over to some of the kids who were in the baby aisle and seemed a little confused.”
This set of students had no experience buying for infants, suggesting they had no younger siblings in the household. They were down to their few last budgeted dollars and considering the purchase of a pacifier.
Block explained to the two young shoppers that not all parents necessarily use pacifiers and proposed an alternative. Both teens appeared surprised when Block presented her idea.
“I suggested they buy a book the parents could read to their child,” Block shared. “I was able to pass on the importance of nighttime stories with even young babies.”
Rotary club members worked together to pack up the gifts and prepare them for delivery to the families. Wrapping paper went along with the drop-offs, with no one expected to reveal the source of the presents.
The Rotary Club of Barnegat meets Wednesdays at Lefty’s Tavern at 5:45 p.m. All are invited to stop in at a meeting to experience a fellowship of involved community members.