For several days last week, destitute families with appointments and an Adopt-a-Family gift number checked in at the lobby at the veterans hall in Grass Valley.
Inside, volunteers from the Salvation Army, Roamin’ Angels car club, Women of Worth, Toys for Tots, Nevada County Sheriff’s Office and others led the recipients through rows of specially numbered bags or boxes of gifts neatly laid out on the gym floor.
Each family’s number was matched with a bag or a box with the same number, because the contents contained — to the extent possible — that family’s wish list for Christmas.
Eighteen of those overstuffed bags lined out on the floor were the combined contributions of between 500 to 600 students from Nevada Union High School.
A school tradition
“It’s been here forever,” said English teacher Lynn McDaniel, who has taught at NU for 28 years. “It was here when I got here.”
McDaniel affirmed Nevada Union High School students defy stereotypes: “I think kids are often given the handle as self-centered and selfish — and they are anything but that!
“Many kids in my classes have said, out loud, they were beneficiaries when they were younger — and they often are the most generous kids to give back,” McDaniel observed.
“They love doing it,” said Alicia Bertoli, a student activities tech and Associated Student Body bookkeeper. “They did a wonderful job of not only collecting for the children but also the adults as well.”
This year, 18 classrooms and student-driven clubs each chose to adopt a family, reported Pete Totoonchie, student activities director, English and advanced leadership teacher — and a 2001 NU alumnus who participated in the Adopt-a-Family program when he was a student.
He said the Adopt-A- Family program gives kids “the opportunity to step up and do what they see responsible adults do.”
“It makes them feel mature,” he said. “They’re excited to get on board.”
But “the most exciting day for me is when the Salvation Army comes to pick up the packages,” Totoonchie concluded.
The kids are all right
“It’s really cool to see everyone pitch in. It’s a team-building experience,” said Student Executive Council member Sarah Goodnow. Even though she’s only a sophomore, Goodnow is a veteran of the Adopt-a-Family program, having worked on it when she was at Union Hill School.
“It’s like a gift for me to be able to do this. It’s inspiring,” she added.
“I’ve done it ever since I was a freshman,” said Kyler Vaughan, a junior and class vice president.
Fiona Micoleau, a junior and member of the executive council, said, “We were all involved.”
Carefully following each family’s wish list (which included a family biography) and under the guidance of the Salvation Army and adult advisers, the student teams went out and bought or donated age- and size-appropriate toys, clothing and gifts for the whole family.
Although the students got to see and pack up the presents, they didn’t get to give them away. The packages were picked up from the school Dec. 16, and the students were taking finals when the giveaway began at the vets hall Dec. 18.
Micoleau said her reward comes when “they write us thank you letters.”
About 450 families served
“This community is so giving,” enthused Lt. Reyna Salcido of the Grass Valley Salvation Army. “We can help hundreds.”
Working closely with Salcido, Salvation Army homelessness prevention case manager and volunteer coordinator Vicki Winters was in charge of this year’s Adopt-A-Family effort.
And it’s no small effort, involving dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers from other organizations, and thousands of details.
For example, one detail Winters made sure of was that none of the families assigned to the NU students had kids at NU, just to avoid any chance of humiliation.
And not everybody was able to show up to pick up their gift packages, which meant volunteers would be sent out to deliver them.
Some people forget their appointment, some can’t get a ride, and some are just too embarrassed to come in, said George Mueller, one of the volunteer Roamin’ Angels at the vets hall.
Nevertheless, those packages will be delivered, even on San Juan Ridge and up the road in Washington, Winters vowed.
Although final numbers won’t be available until after Christmas, Winters estimated when it’s all over, about 450 Nevada County families will have had a happier Christmas because of the generosity of the community, including the kids of Nevada Union High School.
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at email@example.com.