OGDEN – For the past dozen of Decembers, a dedicated group of volunteers has helped make Christmas happen for struggling students and their families in northern Utah.
This year’s Community Christmas Event is scheduled for Saturday, December 10 at Ben Lomond High School. As if by magic, the school’s Commons area transforms to host festivities guaranteed to lighten loads and lift hearts.
“We do this in partnership with multiple partners” ― the Ogden-Weber Community Action Partnership and United Way among them, said Carrie Maxson, Equity & Access Supervisor for the Ogden School District. “We really want it to be a boost … for people who otherwise could not afford Christmas for their children.”
This year 2,015 children and 648 families from Box Elder, Weber and Davis Counties will take advantage of this helping hand.
Tami McBride is in her third year orchestrating the event.
“Obviously there’s a huge need here in our communities,” McBride said, pointing to how quickly registrations hit capacity during the first three weeks of October.
How it works
Their website details how people can chip in by purchasing gifts for a family selected from a “giving tree” ― more than 100 such conifers are sprinkled through businesses from Tremonton to North Salt Lake.
At 3pm on Dec. 9, Ben Lomond Principal Steve Poll said he hands the school over to volunteers who proceed to launch its metamorphosis.
“The school basically turns into a department store. There’s toys, clothes, items everywhere for parents to come and get what they need for Christmas,” Poll said. But by 5pm the next day, the hustle and bustle dies down, leaving traces of lingering joy behind.
“I tell people it’s organized chaos,” McBride said. “We gather all the donations from all our giving trees (Friday) night, bring it all there and unload it in a huge pile … and magically it turns into a nice looking store on Saturday.”
Families arrive in three staggered groups according to their alphabetical position, and while waiting in line they weave past resource tables that include Workforce Services, the Ogden Bike Collective, the HEAT Program, the Boys & Girls Club and more.
Once “in the store,” parents get to shop while their kids enjoy a holiday carnival in another part of the building.
In order to qualify for the opportunity, parents had to complete one of two classes ― either on financial literacy or “Parenting Elevated.”
“It’s not a big obligation but it gives them some ownership in it,” McBride said.
But the greatest joy could be evidence that the hand out actually works as a hand up.
“Every year we have volunteers who come and say they’ve been recipients of help in past years and now they’re in a better place and have come to return that help to someone else,” McBride said.
In the trenches
While Shelby Staton finishes her Masters in Social Work at Weber State University, she spends her weekdays at Ben Lomond High School interning as an AmeriCorps Community School Coordinator.
According to U.S. News & World Report, Ben Lomond has a total minority enrollment of 64% and 65% of its students are economically disadvantaged.
“I have about 37 targeted students in my caseload,” Staton said. But other students also need extra help, she said, and “those students come to me as well.”
Sadly, a lot of their needs are quite basic ― like food. Marketstar Resource Center helps by providing dinner bags and Thanksgiving bags that Staton can deliver to students in need.
“Also Community Christmas is a big one,” Staton said. “We try to recruit our targeted students’ families to apply and get that extra help.”
One student was sent her way after recently becoming homeless. And Staton noticed she wasn’t wearing any shoes.
“I connected her to Youth Futures and some other places she could go. At first she was like ‘who are you?’” Staton said. But Staton won her trust and helped her get a coat, shoes and other clothing ― along with food for herself and her family.
“When they know what I do, they start opening up about what they need,” Staton said. “Now we say ‘hi’ in the hallway. It’s really a nice relationship that was built.”
Staton grew up in Layton, where she often heard negative stories about Ogden. But now she views the city in a different light.
“It’s like a hidden gem ― I love the Ogden School District,” Staton said. “They recognize the needs and support their students.”
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