The tension was palpable as 63 kindergarten students sat on the gymnasium floor at East Aurora’s O’Donnell Elementary late last week.
They squirmed and fidgeted, holding wrapped gifts in their hands, waiting as patiently as they could for “elves” from Naperville School District 203’s Lincoln Junior High to hand out presents to each kindergarten student.
Then Gladys Escalante, an O’Donnell bilingual kindergarten teacher who helped organize the event, said the words the students had been waiting for: “On your mark, get set… Go!”
The students shrieked as they tore into the paper, their mouths gaping as many of them realized they had received the gifts they asked for in a letter they wrote to Santa earlier in the semester.
This is the seventh year that Escalante has worked with teachers at Lincoln Junior High in Naperville to coordinate a gift event.
She and another kindergarten teacher at O’Donnell have their students write a letter to Santa with three wishes as part of a language arts project.
The students can ask for whatever they want, Escalante said, but most keep their requests modest and some ask for presents they can share with their siblings. Among this year’s requests were a baby doll, pajamas, an electric toothbrush and Legos.
“This year I think the kids are aware of their needs and their wants,” Escalante said.
Then those letters are sent to Lincoln Junior High where seventh-grade students volunteer to fulfill the wishes of the O’Donnell students. They try to keep the gifts at $25 or less, said Angela Hull, one of the seventh-grade teachers who helped coordinate the event.
About 85 students from Lincoln Junior High participated in the project, some teaming up to fulfill a Christmas wish. Nineteen students were chosen through a lottery to travel to the gift-giving event.
Many Lincoln Junior High students who couldn’t buy presents opted to help at a gift-wrapping party during their lunch hour, Hull said, and then parents volunteered to load up the gifts and drive them to O’Donnell.
Part of the program’s intent is to teach the seventh-graders that not far from their own homes families are in need of a little extra help during the holidays, Hull said.
“This really hits home, especially when they see it first-hand in person,” she said.
Some Lincoln Junior High students said participating in the gift program helped them see that they take for granted that they will receive the expensive video games and other items they ask for on their own Christmas lists.
“What these kids were asking for are things we use every day,” said 13-year-old Braden Conroy.
Escalante said the event is not just about having students who live in a more affluent area bring gifts to students in need. She said it’s a chance to connect, as many East Aurora parents spend time cooking traditional food that is served during the event.
“They’re doing their best to share,” Escalante said.
At the event, a long table was filled with homemade enchiladas, flautas, sweet tamales and tostadas, as well as holiday goodies like cookies, flan and rice pudding.
Maeva Madera said she got home from work at 7:30 a.m. and then started making ham and cream cheese wraps to bring to the event.
“We were rushing,” Madera said as her daughter, Kathy, examined the Legos she received as part of her gift. “I got off from work and then I was in the kitchen.”
Hull said one of the best parts of the events is that the seventh-graders are still kids themselves in some ways, so they take great pride and pleasure in seeing younger kids enjoy their gifts.
Ethan Smith, 12, helped pick out a Batman action figure, Legos and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy for O’Donnell student Antonio Gomez.
Before he handed Gomez his gift, Smith nervously lined up the shiny green paper-wrapped boxes.
“I don’t know what I’m going to say,” Smith said. “Probably that I like Batman, too.”
After Gomez had opened his present, Smith sat down beside him. Smith said while he was excited to see Gomez enjoy the gift, he didn’t want to ruin the secret that he had bought the gifts instead of Santa. So instead, he talked to Gomez about the toy.
“That is a nunchuck, so you could have a ninja battle,” Smith said to Gomez.
The only thing that could have made the event even better, Smith said, was if he spoke more Spanish so he could talk more with Gomez.