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A student lesson in giving

Schoolchildren around the county take pleasure in helping to provide holiday gifts and food for less-fortunate kids.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Hernando High School students (from left to right) Jennifer Kirkpatrick, 17, Vanessa Reed, 17, Amber Rodgers, 14, and Blake Bell, 18, are members of the Student Alliance Club.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 20, 2001

BROOKSVILLE -- With their arms heavily laden with games, coloring books, stuffed animals and other toys, the teenagers giggled with delight as they bounded through the doors of the Childhood Development Services office in Brooksville.

Though Christmas is still days away, the bounty is piling up beneath a brightly decorated tree in the agency's back office. But not for long. Soon every beautiful doll and cuddly teddy bear, every basketball and yo-yo will be leaving, on its way to the loving arms of a child somewhere in Hernando County.

"It would be cool if we could fill up the whole room," says 17-year-old Jennifer Kirkpatrick. Indeed, it is the wish that every member of Hernando High's Student Alliance hopes to make come true before the week is out.

For the past few weeks, 22 members of the Student Alliance have been working hard to make this a wonderful Christmas for those who otherwise might not have one.

From generous classmates, faculty and staff, they managed to gather dozens of new toys. In addition, the students were able to raise more than $250, which they will use to buy even more gifts. In the end, they hope that their efforts will help provide a wonderful Christmas for about 150 families who might otherwise have had none.

"It's just something we love doing," said 17-year-old club president Vanessa Reed. "Helping to make somebody's Christmas a little nicer, well, let's just say it gives the holiday more meaning for me."

That sentiment seems to be a driving force among hundreds of Hernando County schoolchildren who have taken the spirit of giving to heart this year.

Most schools in the community typically sponsor some sort of food drives or toy dropoffs every year. But for many children, the ability to reach out to help their community this holiday season offers a unique way to embrace and better understand the world around them.

"Kids tend to be very community-conscious when it comes to holiday events," said LaFay Taylor, a reading teacher at Pine Grove Elementary who acts as an adviser to the school's student council. "They understand that by bringing in a toy or a can of food that they may be helping a child who is very much like them in many ways."

Taylor points to the outpouring of generosity that helped students raise more than $1,200 for Sept. 11 victim relief as a sign that children often take such responsibility deeply into their hearts.

"We had kids emptying out their piggy banks and bringing in their entire savings," said Taylor. "It was just very important for them to be involved."

Pine Grove fifth-grader Courtney McDougald, 11, who is vice president of the student council, agrees and adds that many children her age just have a natural tendency to want to do more because they realize they could be helping a friend and not even know it.

"A lot of kids have friends that come from poor families," she said. "One of the reasons they bring stuff in is so that they can make sure that nobody has to go without food at Christmas."

At Fox Chapel Middle, the school's Beta Club has had great success in its Christmas toy drive. A few weeks ago club members began gathering toys and other items in hopes of bringing a happier holiday to about 10 families whose children attend the school.

In addition to getting donations of radios, games, toys and other small items, the club held a fundraiser that netted about $150 in donations from classmates. With the money, the club plans to buy some additional gifts.

But the biggest coup was the donation of five bicycles through a giveaway program sponsored by the Sumter County Sheriff's Office.

Crissi Brandhuber, a Fox Chapel language arts teacher and Beta Club sponsor, says that in the two years she has worked with the club on its Christmas Toy drive, she never fails to be amazed at how much some of her students are willing to give for the project.

"For the most part, these are young teenagers who are seeing that what they do for others can have an impact on other lives," she said. "Most of them don't even know who received the gifts. The great thing is that it doesn't even matter to them. They just feel good that they were a part of something that had a positive effect on someone else."

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