11/11/2012 07:47AM ● Published by Christie Gibson
Gallery: Christmas Connection at Fort Walton Beach High School [6 Images] Click any image to expand.
As a civil rights role model, Norman B. Rice once said, “Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light.”
Fort Walton Beach High School (FWBHS) leadership student Savannah Smith never dreamed she'd be a part of something very special and life-changing her freshman year when she signed up for the school's Leadership class. She thought she'd simply be learning leadership skills from a textbook. But, as she soon found out, leadership can be learned in unique ways and comes in many forms.
Savannah joins her Leadership class’ effort in a community involvement program called Christmas Connection. "Christmas Connection is the highlight of my year as it has changed me for the rest of my life," said Savannah. "I will never look at the holidays the same way, but will always think of the season as a special time to give to others who so desperately need it."
Though the Leadership class' projects are overwhelming in number and growing each year, the students are best known for this project. Already in its 14th year, freshmen through seniors work diligently to organize and provide more than 85 families and more than 200 children throughout Okaloosa and Walton Counties with a comprehensive Christmas.
Each leadership student is involved in planning, fundraising, purchasing and delivering full meals for up to 14 days including breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as decorations and gifts totaling at least $100 for each child.
The program requires more than $35,000 per year to operate. To ensure the program is a success, FWBHS students begin money-raising efforts in October by hosting their annual “Chowdown," which is the initial student run fundraiser for Christmas Connection. They also collect bags of canned food goods as well as purchase milk, eggs, butter, hams and turkeys during the next two months.
The students also embark on sponsorships. "Such a high bar has been set, and there are many additional families that need to be helped," said Barbara Britt, FWBHS's long-standing leadership teacher and sponsor, "that it is now upon students in even greater measure to generate money for this project." Each leadership student is responsible for asking local businesses and individuals to sponsor the program. Many companies and businesses have donated items or supplied money over the years, and the program depends on this community-driven support. Students also raise funds through a Wal-Mart "donation" fundraiser. "Every leadership student works tirelessly to collect donations from the community, whether monetary or materialistic," said Blane Margaretten, junior leadership student.
As December approaches, families recommended are selected, and leadership students meet with them to assess their needs and make a personal connection, especially with the children. "It is upon the leadership students to meet and get to know the families in their care," said Coach Britt. As the students become acquainted and gain information about the children, as well as the needs of the parents, they set forth their plans on how to ensure the family is completely happy and lifted of many of their worries by Christmas.
On Dec. 16 more than 100 students will descend upon Wal-Mart for a shopping spree to select gifts for the children. "Since we will have gotten to know our families, we get excited to pick out just the right toy or item for that child or mom or dad,” says Savannah. That same day, the toys are brought to FWBHS and wrapped by students and volunteers. Items are prepared to be delivered on Dec. 20. These leadership students will tell you that, even though this monumental day can be exhausting, some deliveries being made until 1 a.m., they wouldn't trade it for anything—in fact, they look forward to it as one of the most pivotal days of their year. "Once you see a parent's eyes light up at the entrance of a child's bike rolling into their house, all frustrations and exhaustion wear off—only warmth and vitality remain to do even more," said Savannah. "I can't even explain the feeling of knowing you're doing something good and right and lasting."
"Tears of joy pour from both the eyes of the giver and of the receiver throughout the experience," said Coach Britt. "The students truly make an impact on the lives of the children and of the parents." Coach Britt says the forefront of Okaloosa County’s community service volunteers and dedicated help providers are primarily from FWBHS’s Leadership classes. These high school students hold the torch of FWBHS’s Leadership involution in community service; their acts have been recognized by district, state, and national organizations as well as government institutions. "The Leadership program is not just a community service provider," said Coach Britt, "but a student-run cooperation which heads a vast amount of projects ranging from community publicity, Student 2 Student and Link Crew, establishing Gold Medallion status for FWBHS, and even appealing to the state legislature for a new resolution on suicide prevention, passed unanimously by the State SGA.
Through Christmas Connection and the additional leadership opportunities and activities involved with FWBHS's leadership program, students are learning not only how to become ordinary leaders, but also how to take the lead in helping others. And that is priceless.