Generosity finds its way to those who need it in Oak Creek

Through student efforts, high school program tries to make holiday happier for families

Dec. 10, 2013

This year, thanks to the students at Oak Creek High School, 33 families will have a happier holiday despite some notable misfortune.

The families, all of whom all have children in the Oak Creek-Franklin School District, were chosen by counselors and administrators because they were on track for a bleak holiday. Some experienced a parent death. Others had a parent laid off. The list also included students who may not have a family to celebrate the holidays with.

Whatever their misfortune, they will all benefit from a program now in its fourth year.

Called the Generosity Program, it is a gift-giving, fundraising effort that encourages the high school students to do what they can for others whose spirits aren't as high as they might be due to circumstances they couldn't control.

The students hope to line the Oak Creek High School gym with presents. The gifts will be delivered to or picked up by the recipients on Friday.

Oak Creek teacher Jeff Tiedke, who is on the program's oversight committee, said students gathered thousands of gifts last year in a similar effort.

It could be anyone

Each gift recipient remains anonymous to the students involved. The students, broken down into classroom-oriented advisory groups, only know the gender and age of those they are raising money for.

"You never know who it could be," senior Eric Radke said. "It could be one of your best friends in one of your classrooms."

When senior Emily Larch was going to school in Milwaukee, her family was the beneficiary of a similar program. They were going through some tight times, and the entire family was focused on making sure her two younger siblings could have a decent holiday experience, even if the rest of the family couldn't.

The amount of support, however, ensured that Larch's entire family could have a great holiday. She said it was the best Christmas she ever had.

She shared that experience with her advisory group to motivate them to raise money for their anonymous giftee, a young girl.

"It was mind-blowing to know that there are really wonderful people out there still who care about you even though they don't know you," she added.

A giving atmosphere

This is the first year school staff have been involved in collecting gifts as well, and that added involvement has already resulted in one more heart-warming story.

High school secretary Denise Paulson, who was assigned the task of finding a gift for a young girl who wanted Barbie items for the holidays, unexpectedly became the recipient of someone's else's generosity.

Paulson had been Black Friday shopping a few days earlier at the Target in Franklin. She called, asking if they still had a deal on a Barbie dollhouse. Instead of giving her the deal, an employee purchased the house, a Barbie car and a Barbie doll for her.

When Paulson came to pick up the items, the employee met her at the door. Through teary eyes, the employee told her she had recently adopted a child who had once been given the same type of help on the holidays.

Starting large

The program, put together by the guidance department, nearly bit off more than it could chew in its first year in 2010. Students packed the office with Christmas trees, boxes and more items than could fit.

Although social worker Jody Ebbinger-Bentley said it was a bit of a logistics nightmare, she added that the guidance staff was overwhelmed by the student's charity, which brought many employees to tears.

The guidance office had to scramble, finding trucks and trailers to deliver the goods. Since then, they've gotten more organized. There is now a committee made of guidance counselors and teachers, called the Gratitude Team, which oversees the project's delivery.

Despite large beginning, the program has grown even more since then, adding more than 10 families over the last two years.

Like Santa's sleigh

Many families are now asked to come into the school and pick up the items, but if they can't, the items will be delivered for them.

On the first year of the project, Ebbinger-Bentley delivered to families personally. She had been using her SUV to deliver throughout the day and it had been snowing badly. She was tired, but said she felt like Santa in his sleigh. She was even wearing a Santa stocking cap.

The last family she delivered to was in a shelter in Milwaukee. They had lost their home earlier in the school year and lost the motel room they were staying at. A few days after Ebbinger-Bently, with the help of shelter staff, delivered the items, she received a call from the family.

There had been over $300 worth of gift cards tucked among the large amounts of toys, food and clothes. The family told her that they would be using that money to furnish their new apartment.

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