Apr. 24—SUMMERVILLE — Though the calendar and temperatures in the 70s belied the holiday theme, it was still "Christmas in April" for two dozen City Park School students April 7 as they shopped for gifts for their families and themselves.
"I'm grateful to come here, because I know some people don't have (these) things," said fifth-grader Yaneli Diaz. "You can get things for your family and for yourself."
Kendall Nolasco was also "thankful for everything," said the fifth-grader. "I'm happy to be able to get (my family members) something, and they'll be excited."
It is "great to get stuff for family, and they'll be surprised," said fifth-grader Jose Perez. "I'm happy and grateful for what I was able to get."
"I love the lessons our kids are learning, how good it feels to give, as well as to receive," said Kim Rhyne, City Park's principal. "Every one of the kids I was around, the first thing they did was (shop) for their families, (leaving) themselves for last."
Nolasco picked up an orange juice maker for his father, a blanket for his sister and multiple items for his brothers, he said as he perused the offerings inside the Chattooga County Agricultural Center. "I'll look for me later."
Diaz selected a kitchen "container set for my mom, a kid piano for my baby brother, a weighted blanket for my uncle and a dartboard for my dad," she said. "They'll be happy and grateful."
Though Diaz also got roller skates and a blanket for herself, "it's better to get things for my family (than myself), because I want to help them," she said. "When I get (older), I will help them (by contributing financially to the household), because I'm grateful for all the ways they've helped me in my life."
Sandals for a younger sister, a toddler bed for his baby sister and a Spider-Man costume for his little brother were part of the haul for Perez, as was a scooter for himself, he said.
"I've ridden on a scooter before, but this is the first one (of my own)."
There's "about $100,000 worth of goods here, either returns to Amazon or overstocks through Amazon Fulfillment (Centers), and everything is new and good quality," said Carla Harward, chief executive officer and chief financial officer for Helping Hands Ending Hunger, a nonprofit that helps schools conserve, rather than waste, food and then get that surplus food to children in the most need. "This is an amazing opportunity in our area."
City Park was chosen for this opportunity based on the success of its Helping Hands Ending Hunger program, which was launched by teacher Alecia Halman in the fall of 2019. Through the initiative, the school's students have the option to donate surplus food from their school meals; that food is then collected, stored and given to students in need.
"It's great and helpful," Perez said. "It helps get people food who need it."
Diaz is "grateful" for Helping Hands Ending Hunger, because "a lot of people lost jobs during the (COVID-19) pandemic, and some can't work because of" COVID-19, she said. "Their kids might not have food" because of those financial setbacks, but the program provides.
"We serve upwards of 70 students," who go home each Friday with a bag of food for the weekend for themselves and their families, Halman said. "We're over 14,200 pounds" of food collected this academic year — "more than seven tons — and we had 6.5 tons last year" before schools shifted to complete virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March and remained that way for the final two months of the 2019-20 academic year.
Students have thrown their support behind the initiative to such a degree that "we actually have a surplus of food," she said. "It would be too much for kids to carry (home), so we donate boxes of extra food weekly to Providence Ministries."
Halman receives plenty of assistance from students, not just with the obvious food donations, but also with sorting, cataloguing, counting, storing and packing, she said, noting, "They're such a blessing."
Students, teachers and administrators selected 25 fifth-graders, all of whom are regular food recipients, to "shop" in Summerville April 7, and each student was encouraged to fulfill one need and one want of their own in addition to picking up items for family members, she said. Due to COVID-19, "we haven't been able to do a lot of the things this year that make our school special, (including) field trips, so this is extra special, and very exciting."
Remedium Life Science, in coordination with the Chattooga Chamber of Commerce Foundation and Helping Hands Ending Hunger, provided truckloads of goods to help struggling families throughout Northwest Georgia in early April. Students from Cherokee Ridge Elementary, Rossville Elementary and Gilbert Elementary schools, all in Walker County, followed City Park's students into the agricultural center April 7, while various school groups, foster parents and other regional community groups serving residents in need, including the Boys & Girls Club, had their opportunity the following day. New clothing, shoes, diapers, bedding, kitchen items, musical instruments, fitness and sports equipment, toys and electronics were all part of the "Christmas in April" event.
Though only 25 students could shop for themselves and their families from City Park, the entire school benefits, because the school was also able to pick up items for all students to use, such as "little bikes that go under desks for kids who need to burn off excess energy, tons of costumes for plays we want to do, musical equipment and yoga mats," Rhyne said. "All students will get more opportunities because of this."
"Everything we took is something we can use," said Hannah Talley, City Park's media specialist, who obtained storage containers for the media center, among other items. "Everything was chosen for a purpose."
Halman hopes more schools launch Helping Hands Ending Hunger programs, even though "it is a big job," because "it is powerful when you see all the kids with their bags." Educators interested in implementing Helping Hands Ending Hunger at their school can visit the website www.helpinghandsendinghunger.org.
"It's a really big deal for them (the students) to get the (weekend food) bags," she said. "It makes a difference."