By Daniel A. Brown
Learning about kindness, caring and the joys of literacy are never out of season.
Yet year-round, for many low-income families their love for their children far exceeds their resources to purchase books and other basic educational needs. Studies show poverty can negatively affect a student’s school performance. Ever year, United Way of Northeast Florida helps fill this gap with its annual signature event, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which brings some surprise holiday cheer and academic help to local children who need it the most.
Now in its 17th year, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is a partnership between United Way, Duval County Public Schools, corporate investors and community volunteers.
This year, the event took place the morning of Friday, Dec. 6, at six Title I schools within Duval County’s Full Service Schools footprint. Full Service Schools, a neighborhood initiative of United Way and several community partners, implements programs to remove non-academic barriers to success for local students and their families.
At Merrill Road Elementary School, volunteers from the medical device company Medtronic gathered in the school’s media center, sitting in colorful plastic chairs, fueling up on complimentary donuts and coffee. Several companies sponsored, volunteered or both to make “A Visit From St. Nicholas” possible. In addition to Medtronic, this year’s participating companies include Wells Fargo, Regency Centers, GE Aviation/Unisom, Fidelity National Financial, Main Street America, Target, Miller Electric, Swisher International, Intrepid Capital, FedEx, Ja-Ru, Waffle House, Cabot Cheese, Papa John’s Pizza, New York Life and T-Mobile.
The night before, volunteers secretly decorated each of the six schools. Merrill Road Elementary, where I was volunteering that day, was no exception. Before even checking in at the school’s front office, I found myself walking over silver tinsel that covered the white-tile floors in every possible direction.
I was one of the volunteers who would soon suit up as Old St. Nick. My girlfriend works at United Way, and I am given many and various opportunities to volunteer around Northeast Florida. As a freelance writer who owns a beat-up minivan, my time and transport are at the ready.
It was there in Merrill Road Elementary media center where we were given “elf-boots-on-the-ground” instructions by our de facto leader: Jeannie Roggio, impressively dressed (most fittingly) as a holiday elf.
While she spends most of her year working as a senior paralegal at Medtronic, Roggio has spent the past 12 years volunteering for “Discovery Day.” She works tirelessly, helping lead the event from start to finish at their designated school.
“Medtronic’s Mission dictates that our first and foremost priority is to contribute to human welfare and reminds us that our efforts are transforming the lives of millions of people each year,” said Roggio. “The time and effort that goes into this event is worth it tenfold, and it is a shared effort, as I could not do this without the volunteers.”
This would be my second year portraying St. Nicholas. Even though this wasn’t totally unfamiliar territory, I was nervous, glancing up at the clock as I needlessly drank my weight in orange juice. (If you’ve seen me, that’s a lot of juice.)
Soon Roggio directed a fellow volunteer and myself to a side room in the media center. Its window was covered with green construction paper, offering us privacy for our yuletide makeover. Once inside, we donned the St. Nick garb: green cloak and matching hat, featuring gold-leaf accents leading up to plastic leaves framing our faces, all accented with white gloves.
After being dropped off at school, the students aged prekindergartern through second grade, unsuspectingly stepped into hallways filled with the glittery tinsel and other holiday decorations by volunteer the night before. Once in their classrooms, the students discovered the surprise gift of new backpack filled with books and toys.
Roggio then sent out the first wave of volunteers: groups who would visit each classroom, read to them a story about St. Nicholas and share ideas for acts of kindness.
My fellow St. Nick and I would be splitting up into two groups. We’d each be visiting one half of the school’s classrooms, joined by our own personal entourage of assistants and a photographer to document our sudden appearances.
The leader of my group was Arlington Full Service Coordinator Vicki Lunsford. I tried to make nervous chit-chat with Lunsford but became increasingly anxious. By the time I reached the first room, I felt like I would be consumed by a full-fledged St. Nick panic attack. I took a deep breath. I swung open the door.
“Why hello there, children.…”
For the next two hours or so, I would stick to a basic, assigned-but-flexible routine: I’d ask the children if they liked their new backpacks, then ask them about who they could practice kindness toward (“Your parents? Schoolmates?” Then, the showstopper: “Maybe your teachers?!”). Then, I’d hand out a “kindness coin” to each student.
The visit would culminate with the students gathering around “St. Nick” for a photo. Then, I would casually sidestep out of frame. For the final photo, Lunsford and the entourage would spray the unsuspecting kids with silly string. We’d leave the kids laughing, covered in green, yellow and orange foam string and head to the next classroom.
To ease my lingering anxiety, by the third classroom I realized I’d have to really throw myself fully into this role. By the time we got to the final classroom, I was making up spontaneous songs and singing them as I popped my head into each room.
Our whole group was giddy, invariably laughing as we visited each classroom. The kids were at turns surprised, if not baffled, by this giggling group of adults. But then they were soon caught up in the fun.
Within two hours, the collective volunteers had visited 620 students in 21 classrooms. Impressive numbers made all the more poignant when factoring in five other schools receiving this well-wrapped gift of fun, literacy, kindness, and joy.
When we reconvened, both veteran and newbie volunteer alike were elated. I was exhausted but buzzing with excitement and gratitude. For nearly two hours, I was part of this traveling group of laughing adults seeing the firsthand joy and result of showing up as a United Way volunteer and bringing sudden fun and gifts to kids who were truly appreciative.
Volunteering is the smallest investment of time with an immeasurable dividend of hope. The children of Merrill Road Elementary were happy — as were the faculty and, of course, this volunteer.
“The front office staff of Merrill Road were excited and stated it was a wonderful surprise for the staff and students,” Lunsford said.
Roggio had again successfully directed a couple dozen volunteers into creating a truly magical day that featured literacy, kindness, and at least one 47-year-man romping around the halls with untethered giddiness.
“My favorite is seeing the kids’ smiles, getting the many hugs and hearing them laugh out loud,” said Roggio. “Not just the normal laugh — the deep down belly-shaking ones when St. Nicholas comes into the classroom, and we silly string them. I love knowing the backpacks are gifts they will learn from and play with and this event will becherished and remembered for years to come.”
While Roggio is there in a professional capacity as an employee and representative of the Medtronic team, she has a personal tie to the project as well.
“This event calls me because I have personally experienced some of the hardship this cause is aiming to minimize,” she said, “and it touches my heart. Empathy drives me to give back and make a difference in the lives of those going through the same situation now.”
Unsurprisingly, considering her passion, Roggio’s two teenage children have volunteered since they were the same ages as the students at Merrill Road Elementary.
“[Volunteering] is shifting their perspective and opening their minds to what is truly important: to be a part of something bigger than themselves that makes a difference and has an impact on someone else’s life,” she said. “It transforms their lives as well.”
And that’s a gift we can all enjoy, regardless of the season.
Whether through sponsorship, volunteerism or giving, you can help improve the lives of our neighbors in need and make a positive difference in Northeast Florida. For more information on United Way of Northeast Florida’s volunteer opportunities, visit unitedwaynefl.org/volunteer. More information on United Way can be found at unitedwaynefl.org.