WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Katrina Gustin, left, and Isabella Corderio-Walesiak tear into shoeboxes filled with surprises.
EDMONTON - The thrills of Christmas morning came early for the students of four Catholic elementary schools in Edmonton.
"A lot of these kids are forgotten - well, today they're not," said Stephen Kasowski, as he, his wife Debra and a troupe of volunteers brought Christmas to a group of low-income students.
For the past three years, the Kasowskis, members of St. Basil's Ukrainian Catholic Parish, have been spearheading the Spirit of Christmas project that brings gift-filled shoeboxes to Catholic schools with a higher percentage of low-income students.
Aware of Operation Christmas Child where shoeboxes are sent to impoverished children in Third World countries, Stephen initiated a similar project locally.
"The thing we realized is that no one else is doing this in Edmonton," he said.
"Everyone is sending shoeboxes overseas. There are enough poor kids in Edmonton to do it here too. That's why we're getting the support because people are seeing it here. For some kids, this is their first Christmas."
The project began when Stephen, a bed manager at Grey Nuns Community Hospital, heard that some local students would not receive Christmas gifts. He was further saddened by the fact that many of them showed up for school hungry and without proper winter wear.
He started the Spirit of Christmas at St. Jerome School. It involved a pancake breakfast, a visit from Santa and his team of about 25 volunteer elves, and a shoebox for every child. Each box included a toque, mittens, socks, toothpaste, a healthy snack and age-appropriate toys.
"If we can help these children today, when they get older and remember they were helped as a child, they might turn around and help a child too," said Stephen.
Debra said every volunteer who gets involved wants to stay involved. This year they went to St. Jerome, St. Bernadette, Mother Teresa and St. Leo Catholic elementary schools.
On Dec. 10, a cold day with a -25C wind chill, the Kasowskis and a group of Santa's elves showed up at St. Leo's, 5412-121 Ave.
WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Debra and Stephen Kasowski
Some students there are ill-equipped to brave such cold. Principal Brett Mackey confirmed that some walk to school on cold mornings without mitts, toques and socks. Instead of winter coats, they arrive wearing little fleece jackets.
"A lot of our kids, they collect things for the Lurana Shelter and the food bank throughout the year. Most of that stuff we could easily turn around and give it right to our own families," said Mackey.
"We've certainly got families here in our school community who could use a shoebox full of goodies, more than they would normally get at Christmastime."
As the elves sang Jingle Bells, Santa entered the school gym to a resounding cheer from the students. One by one the students came up to receive their gifts.
"The first year we did it, a boy put on his toque and hugged the box. He said that all he ever wanted for Christmas was a toque," said Debra.
"When you start seeing those simple pleasures, you can appreciate how grateful we are."
Pamela Sharkey, 11, told the WCR that her Grade 6 class has been learning about Advent and the spirit of giving at Christmastime.
"Christmas means giving to charities and being with family. Some of the kids don't get presents because they're poor," said Pamela.
"Everyone deserves something for Christmas, either for the good stuff they did or for what they've been through," she said.
Many people donate money, toys and food to various worthy charities, particularly during the Christmas season. What makes the Spirit of Christmas different is that the volunteers witness the fruit of their labour firsthand.
"We used to do Santa's Anonymous and hamper drives. We did those things, but you don' t get the personal satisfaction because you don't see what the kids get," said Stephen.
"Here, we're having the volunteers come help us and actually experience what they've done - that's the whole point of this."
"Each box costs about $20, that's it. But it changes a child's life, his whole outlook," he said.
Comments from the students reflect that dramatic change: Some say "Santa brought me a new life" and "This is the best day ever!"