Some local students give the gift of life at the holidays
The message is quite simple. The students hear it regularly.
“We tell them to give the gift of self — this is our core message.” said Will Dennis, Norwood-Fontbonne Academy (NFA) campus minister, of the philosophy of serving others.
During the holidays and throughout the entire school year, students at Chestnut Hill’s two Catholic elementary schools are encouraged to serve others.
Visiting nursing home residents and homebound members of the community, with adults from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, is one way OMC School students give of themselves.
“We want them to follow the example given to us through the readings in Gospel, which tell us of Jesus’ life and doing for others,” OMC Principal Bruce Hagy said.
Though the two schools host different service programs, their foundations are rooted in the basic belief that they should follow the directives of Jesus Christ, to take care of those in need.
Both schools start the “holiday” season with Halloween. Students bring candy and goodies they received trick-or-treating into school. This is collected and distributed to soldiers overseas. These treats are added to care packages of toiletries sent to troops overseas through Operation Bedding, The Adam C. Convoy Memorial Fund, named for a young solider from Roxborough who died while serving in Iraq.
NFA also sends candy to help those struggling here at home.
“We don’t ask them to just give us the candy, we ask them to donate, or tithe, their favorite candy,” Dennis said. “We want them to feel a sense of sacrifice.” Packages are prepared and delivered by members of the school’s Community Service Corps (CSC) to the Philadelphia Veterans Multiservice and Education Center.
As soon as Halloween candy is distributed, preparations are made for Thanksgiving. Food drives begin. Student backpacks are full of canned goods, bottled water, pies and even fresh turkeys.
OMC assigns a different food to each grade and all is given to Catholic Social Services to distribute to local homeless and other needy individuals during the holiday. In collaboration with the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Pie Collection for a Germantown dining room, OMC Kindergarteners, first and second graders make cookies together at school to accompany the holiday pies collected by the community each year.
Norwood-Fontbonne’s Thanksgiving collection of non-perishable food items and turkeys has been supporting families from St. Hugh of Cluny in Kensington for the past 10 years. Although the whole school helps these families through food donations, the struggles of parishioners at St. Hugh’s are especially significant to the NFA sixth graders. As part of the school’s Service Learning Curriculum, they visited St. Hugh multiple times during their fifth-grade year.
As with all Service Learning service sites, NFA students learn about the people they will encounter at their learning sites in advance of their visits. While in fifth grade, they studied immigration, had classroom discussions and heard presentations by a representative from St. Hugh’s to better understand the challenges and difficulties of being an immigrant to this country.
“The most important thing is the preparation and reflection,” Dennis said. “You may not get as much out of going out for a day of service. They need to understand about the people they serve, why they are serving, and then reflect on the experience after the fact.”
The Christmas holiday season brings more opportunities for students to give of themselves through sacrifice in fun and creative ways. Young students from OMC’s first and second grades visit the Fairview Nursing Home to sing Christmas carols, bringing many smiles to the elderly residents. Fourth grade students use their artistic skills to create personalized Christmas cards that are delivered to the homebound by the junior high school students, along with a poinsettia plant. Some students are shocked to see that these older persons still have the cards they received in previous visits, “It really shows how much our visits mean to them,” said eighth-grader Lauren Jefferies.
All community members are invited to OMC’s annual Christmas concert. Held on the evening of Dec. 22, it features each grade delivering a performance as part of the holiday show. “Star of Bethlehem,” this year’s theme, will be pervasive throughout songs, dialogue and other musical presentations. For Hagy, it is one of the highlights of the school year.
“Everyone just loves to get involved in this show,” Hagy said. “It’s great fun.”
NFA seventh and eighth graders also use their creative skills to give the gift of themselves to local seniors at St. Joseph’s Villa in Flourtown. Each year the Community Service Corps produces what they dub “The Villa Show.” This includes a caroling session by fourth and fifth graders, but the real highlight is the seventh and eighth grade students’ portion.
Groups of students present songs, skits, readings, poetry or sing-a-longs to entertain the seniors. Past shows have delivered a unique mix of acts including eighth graders dancing in fleece pajamas to “Winter Wonderland,” a comic rendition of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by sixth-grade boys and a seventh grader dressed as a Christmas tree with her friends “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Many of those in the packed room of seniors are familiar to the students, as the Villa is one of the Service Learning sites regularly visited by NFA’s first and second graders. Students often hug the sisters they have visited in the past or travel up to their rooms where the infirm get to watch the show on closed-circuit television.
Both schools spend the month of December collecting food, toys and gifts for families in need. For many years, OMC students have been donating toys to needy children throughout Philadelphia as part of the Archdiocese’s Operation Santa Claus. In addition, this year five to six local families will be the recipients of holiday gifts and other necessities from OMC students.
“The upper and lower grades will pair up to pool resources together to help these families in need,” Hagy explained. “This is a wonderful way different-aged students can work together.”
As with all service, the giving of themselves is the greatest gift. Many students in lower grades make cards, which are distributed along with the toys, and other goods.
Christmas trees, bicycles, stuffed animals and boxes of wrapped presents overflow in front of the altar at NFA’s Christmas Liturgy, held the last day before holiday break. These packages are for 45 children from Guadalupe Family Services in Camden. Each homeroom sponsors a child for the holidays, providing them items from their wish list and giving Santa a little extra help. Special notes are written to the children and disposal cameras are included for the families to take photographs.
As with the Villa visits, the families in Camden are familiar to the NFA children since this is another of the Service Learning sites visited by the eighth graders. Before the collection, representatives from Guadalupe Family Services come to NFA to help the entire student body better understand what it means to grow up in the poorest section of Camden.
“We try to teach compassion instead of pity,” said Dennis. Assemblies targeted for specific age groups provide the students with a better appreciation for the experiences of their neighbors just over the bridge.
By reaching out to others in a variety of ways, students at Chestnut Hill’s Catholic schools learn that there are many gifts they can share with others. They learn that service is a lifestyle.
“In Catholic School you do service works not because it is an option or because it is a requirement,” Dennis said. “You do service because it is the only thing to do. It is a way of life. That’s what we are here for — that is how we hope to raise our children.”