The Gift of Giving

St. Mary's ninth-graders bestow holiday gifts upon their younger schoolmates
St. Mary’s School ninth-graders distribute gifts to Jackson Elementary School students Wednesday in Medford. The older students made it a goal this year to give a gift to every student at Jackson. Mail Tribune / Julia MooreJulia Moore

Tearing through the wrapping paper on his first Christmas gift of the year Wednesday, Caleb Matthews found an Angry Birds drawing kit and 3-D puzzle.

As Caleb finished checking out his present, he looked around his sixth-grade classroom at Jackson Elementary School to see what gifts his classmates were opening.

Two desks over, Elizabeth Dunn had unwrapped a small canvas handbag with candy, glowsticks and an Uno card game inside, while Rose Ford got a drawing book, sketchpad and colored pencils.

The gifts, given to each of the Medford school's 434 kids were from a group of seven St. Mary's School students who independently decided to play Secret Santa for the school.

With 90 percent of the school qualifying for free or reduced lunch, Jackson Elementary has consistently had the largest number of low-income students of Medford's 14 elementary schools, according to Principal Kelly Soter.

The school also has been ranked as one of the top 10 most impoverished schools in all of Oregon.

Caleb said that sometimes he receives a lot of presents during Christmas at his house, and sometimes the holiday isn't that big of a deal.

"It depends on the year, and how the economy is and stuff," said Caleb, 11.

Caleb said that he appreciated the free gifts and the students that delivered them.

"I think it's actually pretty nice," he said.

The partnership between the group of mostly ninth-grade St. Mary's students and Jackson began more than three years ago, when students and families chose to give a Christmas tree and gifts to a few students at Jackson.

Each year the project has expanded, and students have sought out donations from local businesses and the St. Mary's School community.

Last year, about half of the students at Jackson received a gift, but the St. Mary's students saw the look of disappointment on the faces of students who didn't receive presents and made a goal to give gifts to every student this year.

"It's important to give these kids something to look forward to on Christmas," said Hailey Ordal, a St. Mary's ninth-grader who helped organize the project.

While some students immediately opened their gifts after returning to their classroom, some were choosing to bring the wrapped presents home to open on Christmas, Soter said.

"These are kids that a lot of times don't get anything for Christmas," said Paula Savage, a St. Mary's parent who helped with Wednesday's event.

Savage said students received donations of money and presents from St. Mary's families, as well as from Fred Meyer, Lilli Belle Farms, Sons of Norway and The Gap, which held a private shopping party to collect gifts and raise money for the project.

After unwrapping her drawing kit, 11-year-old Elizabeth said she was grateful that the St. Mary's students took the time to get her and her classmates presents.

"It's really amazing, actually," said Elizabeth.

Many students gave handwritten thank-you notes to their Secret Santas as they received their presents.

"I like seeing the kids' faces when they get the gifts," said Ellie Hough, 14, after passing out dozens of presents to sixth-graders. "It's cute."

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.



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