Year round, students in Hamilton Township’s schools learn the importance of spreading kindness and of giving. But that message is particularly strong this time of year, with many schools housing a tree decorated not with ornaments, but with items families and local charities may use to keep warm. The idea behind these Giving Trees—a school district tradition that has been around longer than most staff members—is to help those in need and teach how important it is to spread such warmth to everyone.
“I feel that the greatest part of our Giving Tree is that it teaches all of us to give what we can to help others,” said Jacquelyn Espenhorst, Yardville Heights Elementary School’s guidance counselor of 14 years. “There are families that I may know to be struggling with a financial burden but they generously make a donation to help someone less fortunate. We teach the students of YHS to follow the Golden Rule (Treat others the way that you want to be treated). Unexpected hardships may happen to anyone, and this is just one example of being able to pay it forward to someone else.”
These trees strewn with hats, gloves, socks and toys represent a large yet tight-knit community always striving to share the love.
Many of the 24 public schools in Hamilton have participated in the Giving Tree tradition since their inceptions; others have joined in recent years. In addition to Yardville Heights Elementary, Alexander Elementary School, Grice Middle School, Reynolds Middle School, Robinson Elementary School, University Heights Elementary School, Wilson Elementary School and Yardville Elementary School are among the schools that reported having Giving Trees this year.
School officials said these schools and others throughout the community seize any occasion to encourage acts of selflessness in their students. The district has events like Trick or Treat for UNICEF, Thanksgiving food drives, animal shelter collections, letters of support for Police and Firemen, Operation Gratitude for US military, Soup for Super Bowl can drive, cancer research support, and Red Cross Relief efforts.
‘The goal is to bring warmth to someone’s life this holiday season.’
“Every school has been doing something since the inception of the district… Every school in this district has a guidance counselor and a nurse who is looking out for someone in need—not just at Christmas, at the holidays—but ongoing. At the holidays it’s highlighted,” said Barbara Panfili, principal at Wilson Elementary School.
“I’ve been here 40 years,” Panfili continued. “DiPaola Turkey Farm has been (donating turkeys) forever to every school in the district. It reflects what this community is like… Out of the generosity of their hearts, just giving back to the community.”
James Sterenczak, in his first year as principal at Yardville Heights Elementary, has observed the community’s giving spirit. His school just received a substantial donation of winter coats from the Knights of Columbus as well as new sneakers from Rack Room Shoes. Espenhorst then identifies families who may need some support by examining the list of students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, a nationwide program offering students from families at a certain income level free or reduced lunches and breakfasts while at school.
While Yardville Heights Elementary has anonymously donated the Giving Tree gifts to families from school in the past, this year they are doing something different and calling it the “Winter White Out Sock Drive.” The Giving Tree, set up in the main lobby, will be decorated with white men’s athletic socks and some snowflakes until it looks completely white.
The socks will then be transported to Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. Each week throughout the year, TASK serves more than 4,800 meals to those who are hungry in Mercer County. With some of their clients walking five miles for a single bite to eat, the kitchen wanted to be sure their feet were warm and dry during the winter months.
“The goal is to bring warmth to someone’s life this holiday season,” Sterenczak said.
Isabella Conte, a 5th grade student at Yardville Heights Elementary wrote: “My favorite part of decorating the Giving Tree is knowing that people will now have warmth and comfort for the holidays.”
Daniella DeBonis, another 5th grader, also commented how nice it is knowing individuals in need will be cozy during the holiday season. She also enjoys bringing in the socks and hanging them on the tree.
‘My favorite part is being able to, you know, give a child something that they really wanted.’
While the Giving Trees are a holiday theme throughout Hamilton, every school seems to do it in their own way. Wilson Elementary and Grice Middle School request gifts come solely from its staff, who even before Giving Trees often provided presents or donations to their school. Both schools have the Giving Tree organizer privately ask families of current or former what they may need during the holiday season—such as a particular toy or clothes item—and hang coded tags on trees so no staff member knows who is receiving the gifts. Once the trees are stocked, the items are distributed.
Wilson is one of six Title I schools in Hamilton Township, meaning a high percentage of its students come from from low-income families.
“My favorite part is being able to, you know, give a child something that they really wanted,” Wilson Elementary guidance counselor Karen Mihalow said. “That joy of the holiday season they might not otherwise get. It’s very rewarding to be able to give to the children that I know could use the joy and excitement of opening a present on the holidays.”
Rachel Reither, the special education teacher and Red Cross Club moderator in charge of the Giving Trees, recalled a family who requested coats, socks and underwear.
“The committee got the coats before Christmas and delivered them right after Thanksgiving so the students wouldn’t have to walk to school in their thin hoodies,” Reither said. “[I was] happiest because we were able to quickly help that family and saddest because they were so much in need. We also got that family the socks and underwear, and art supplies and some toys.”
Alexander Elementary School makes their Giving Tree a celebrated and open event where students both give and receive. According to school counselor Nancy Sotomayor, Alexander has always had a Giving Tree. Every year, the custodian puts it up in the lobby for everyone to enjoy. Students get to decorate the tree and love giving things to others who need and appreciate the gifts, Sotomayor said.
“It’s a built-in character education moment,” Sotomayor said. “We give our students a bag, and they get to go ‘shopping’ and pick what they need. One year I remember a student who said, ‘This was so much better than window shopping at the mall!’ Another year a student kept asking, ‘Are you sure I can have this? For real? I can pick anything I need?’ Yet another time there was a student that asked if she could pick something for her baby brother instead of herself.”