ROCK SPRINGS – Simple requests appeared on paper ornaments that decorated the small Christmas tree in the corner of the classroom at Walnut Elementary School.
Stretch gloves. Socks. Hard candy. Chocolate. Body wash. Nuts. Socks. Lotion. Box of tissues. Cookies.
The items signaled a departure from the usual school tradition as they didn’t list gifts that the students wanted to receive but presents that they wanted to give. By foregoing the normal classroom gift exchanges, Walnut fourth-graders are learning about the rewards of generosity. The hope is that these contributions will forge connections that will last into the new year and beyond.
The end of December is always an exciting time in schools, but teachers and students had extra reason to be energized. They were putting the finishing touches on their multi-faceted presents for the residents of Deer Trail Assisted Living. Decorations, music and gift-wrapped packages were all part of the project meant to brighten the outlook and holidays of local seniors.
The year 2020 has featured unique challenges, especially coronavirus-related restrictions that have left people feeling more lonely and isolated. Fourth-grade teachers Michelle Fillpot, Jasmine Garcia and Crystal Richardson wanted to do something special to help students think about others and make sure people didn’t feel forgotten. They had heard the story of a giving tree decorated with gifts desired by senior citizens that nearly went unfulfilled last year. They decided to go all out to make sure that didn’t happen this year.
Instead of organizing a gift exchange among students, they asked families to pick ornaments to take home featuring Deer Trail Christmas wishes. Fillpot said one student observed the giving tree and said it looks like the angel is spreading their wings. She said she didn’t expect that kind of lyrical reaction from a student.
Teachers were additionally surprised when many students asked if they could fulfill multiple requests. Garcia said her students were “super excited” — more excited about giving than receiving.
The outreach didn’t stop there. Students learning in the classroom or virtually at home made 60 Christmas wreaths to decorate Deer Trail Assisted Living. That was enough for every resident, plus a few spares to go around.
They also worked with Walnut music teacher Kathryn Davies to practice Christmas carols. Teachers wanted to visit the care center, but with visiting guidelines being so strict, they filmed the young singers. Teachers noted that though students were nervous about being on camera, it ultimately helped them get over their stage fright as they realized they had multiple chances to get the songs perfect.
Richardson said she loves that they get to do the fun stuff and that the focus is “not me, me, me, but giving.”
When school resumes in 2021, teachers expect the relationship with Deer Trail residents to grow. Workers have plans to express their thankfulness with reciprocity. Teachers said that could feature valentines or May Day baskets.
Bingo days are also on the agenda, with the instructors expecting both the younger and older participants to play to win.
Fillpot said she is looking forward to students making a lasting connection that will continue for the rest of the school year.
See more photos at www.facebook.com/deertrailassistedliving.