By Brooke Gilbert and Lauren Garabedian
Niagara-Wheatfield High School kicks off the holiday season by decorating the main hall of the school with mini Christmas trees, hot chocolate sales made in the morning and hallways lined with red and green. Mr. Pogel's sociology classes manage to remind everyone of the true meaning of Christmas through a program called "Adopt-A-Family."
"It started with a classroom discussion on families and poverty," Pogel said. "It has turned into a crusade to let our friends and neighbors in need know that we care, and we are there for them. Every year the effort has gotten bigger, because the gift of giving is greater than receiving, and each year more want to experience the opportunity to truly make a difference."
Within the past year alone, Pogel's classes adopted up to 50 families in strained circumstances. The goal of this program is to provide these adopted families with a Christmas they will never forget.
To bless the families for the holiday season, funds must be gathered. It all starts as early as September, where the sociology students find local businesses and organizations to donate baskets that they can raffle off to the Niagara-Wheatfield community.
Each year, the owner of Firth Jewelers donates a high-end jewelry piece to be raffled off.
"Groups, students and faculty within the Niagara-Wheatfield district buy a miniature Christmas tree to be decorated and put on display in the school hallways," Pogel said.
A Tribune article revealed North Tonawanda High School is having its first tree auction, as well.
After bring displayed, the Christmas trees are donated to the adopted families.
When the sociology classes receive the list of families, it includes gender, age and a small list of wants the family has requested for Christmas. Family members usually ask for socks and a small toy or two. They ask for necessities and never ask for more than one desired item, such as a doll for a girl or a basketball or football for a boy.
As Christmas gets closer, each family is assigned to a room within the school. First, each family receives a bin of food. The students are very considerate that each family receives an equal amount of products. If there is more than one boy or girl in a given family, the students make sure to buy similar gifts for all children to prevent jealousy and arguments.
In the beginning of December, Pogel takes his students to an after-school trip to Walmart. There, they are given a family and budget based on the size of the family. With the money raised from the raffles, Christmas tree sales and donations, the students buy gifts for their family, taking note of what they had written on their Christmas lists. They try their best to get everything that was asked for, along with some extra surprises they might not have been expecting.
More often than not, parents won't ask for anything. However, if they do, it's a small necessity like a blanket or some lotion.
While the students are shopping, curious customers throughout the store stop and ask what the young teens are doing.
Seeing young adults reaching out to the community surprises the elders of the community and reminds people of the true meaning of Christmas.
"It's a great way to get active in the community and to be aware of the neighbors around us," student Noah Klettke said. "I'm really excited to see the families' reactions with all the gifts we're giving them."
The Walmart located on Military Road in Niagara Falls even saves a cashing-out aisle just for the school and waives the tax of the total amount. After all the families are taken care of, the money that is left over is spent on a bunch of toys that will be distributed evenly among the families.
The purchased items are marked with the family's number as they are being checked out and are loaded into the vans. The bags are then placed into the families' assigned classroom. Students wrap the presents and place them underneath the Christmas tree that every classroom contains.
When the day arrives, everything is loaded onto the buses. The sociology classes drop off all the families' gifts at a local Salvation Army that they adopted the families from. A few of the families even let the students drop their gifts off at their homes. This way, the students get to witness the families' faces light up while they open their gifts.
"My favorite part was not getting to see how excited the children were to receive the gifts we gave them, but also getting to see how grateful the parents/guardians were to us for being able to give their kids presents that they couldn't afford to provide for them on their own," former student Amanda Seiler said.
The study of sociology is the dynamics of people and interactions with race, poverty, age, etc. Pogel expected some participants to be embarrassed and some to be beyond grateful.
"In years past, some parents have hugged the students, thanking them as tears run down their faces," Pogel said.
With each household and family comes a different reaction, a different distribution of emotions.
This program truly puts emphasis on the importance of the holiday season: A special time for families and community to come together and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.
Adopt-a-family has been a huge success in the years past and continues to trend well. With the help from the school and community, "Adopt-A-Family" has made it possible to spread Christmas cheer and bring some holiday spirit into the homes of less-fortunate families.
"It taught me how blessed I am and how many unfortunate people there are in my own town. It was such a great feeling watching their kids open those presents," former student Meagan Pofi said.
This program has taught students social dynamics and reminded them of the true meaning of the holidays.