The Hub of the Neighborhood: Huntington's Holiday Headquarters spreads cheer to those in need

The Hub of the Neighborhood: Huntington's Holiday Headquarters spreads cheer to those in need

By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Specialist

Behind every single student at Huntington Elementary stands someone who cares.

Caring comes easy this time of the year, as cheerful jingles ring through grocery store speakers and car radios. Spirits lift almost involuntarily in joyful anticipation of the merriest time of the year.

For some, however, the holiday season beckons worry. Worry about empty stockings and disappointed children. Worry that there won't be enough to go around.

One simple exchange between a volunteer loading toys into large Kohl’s bags at Huntington’s Holiday Headquarters and a parent juggling an unopened Yahtzee game in one hand and a Star Wars action figure in the other summed up what Huntington Elementary is all about in five short seconds.

“Thank you for doing this, it’s been a really hard year,” said the parent.

“We love doing this,” said the volunteer. “I've been there before. Merry Christmas.”

On one of those “stick your tongue to the metal pole and it will stick” winter nights in Nebraska, the hallways at Huntington filled with shoppers, families of students that were carefully assessed to be of need, to pick out 100 “Huntington dollars” (which were purchased for $5) worth of toys.

The line stretched the length of the corridor, all the way to the exits.

Holiday Headquarters was founded in 2002, before Rik Devney took over as principal and before Sarah McMaster (now the CLC School Community Coordinator) joined the staff.

The premise is pretty straightforward. The school collects donations through several different means and events and then buys gifts before assessing families in need and sending out invitations.

The founders, Sherry Pawelko and former principal Pam Seladcek, drew from a similar event they had attended called Santa’s Store, and then made some slight variations.

“Pam and Sherry discussed how they could make it a very meaningful experience by having the families feel that they did purchase the gifts, so they decided to have the families contribute $5 and receive $100 in items,” McMaster said. “They also wanted to make it a very warm and welcoming event by the little things they did that evening, like providing cookies for the parents and gift wrap stations for the family.”

Go behind the scenes and you’ll see a staff that works tirelessly, for nearly five months of the year, to put on a four-hour event that is just one of many community outreach ventures they operate.

“Before I started at Huntington, it was clear to me that people were adamant about keeping this thing going,” Devney, who has been at Huntington for eight years, said. “It was the heartbeat of what our school wanted to maintain.”

So Devney and his staff took that sentiment, that heartbeat if you will, and turned its message into a mission. One they try to live up to every single day.

“At Huntington, we want to be the hub of our neighborhood,” Devney said. “For families, and for the community, whether you have students that attend our school or not, we want to be at the center of our neighborhood.”

Enter McMaster, who helps coordinate movie nights, skate nights, family science nights, Literacy Night, family and community cafes, and the school’s first ever Multicultural Night, which will take place this spring.

Those are important, and have helped Huntington extend its positive reach into the community, but they’re not as popular as Holiday Headquarters, which draws large participation from staff, community businesses, and even families that received help in the past.

“With all the different events we do at Huntington, this is the most well-attended by staff, because they truly enjoy it,” McMaster, who has seen teachers donate toys and give monetarily, said. “I heard several of them say that they look forward to doing this every year, and they’re really enthusiastic about it.”

Krista Couton has taught at Huntington since the beginning of the semester. The climate at Huntington, and the school’s commitment to its students, has made her feel right at home.

“I already know it’s the kind of place I want to be for a long time,” Couton said. “I so value the connection between a school and its community, and it’s clear that Huntington is doing everything possible to provide support in every aspect of our students’ lives.”

Running a successful Holiday Headquarters has evolved into a yearlong process. McMaster’s preparation begins in early August, but she’s always thinking of ways to enhance the event.

“This is my third year doing it, and each year I’ve realized more and more that you need to get started, get asking for those donations, earlier and earlier,” she said. “I start sending out (donation) requests in early August, and I assembled a committee of staff members around that same time. We start to shop around Thanksgiving, when all the deals are going on. It’s an ongoing process.”

And eagerness to help isn’t something that spreads solely among the Huntington staff. It overflows into the community.

Complete Children’s Health helped out with a toy drive and volunteered at the event. Sister school Cavett Elementary hosted a toy drive and also helped Friday night. Woods Brothers Realty has supported the event, monetarily, for a dozen years, and Nebraska Wesleyan’s Willard sorority put on multiple fundraisers.

That’s just to name a few. The list of contributors stretches far and wide. Spikes Beach Bar and Grille, Wal-Mart, Walgreen’s, Paint Yourself Silly, LUX Art, Target, South Pointe Mall, Shopko and Kohl’s. It’ll leave you nearly breathless.

“All of these partners help to accomplish this wonderful, impactful event,” McMaster said.

A few years ago, Devney was approached by a few NWU graduates who had entered the physical fitness profession and opened their own health club. The group, now Body Innovations (based in Lincoln), pitched the idea of a fundraiser run.

“They realized with kids having two weeks off with no school lunch program, and on top of that holiday meals and that sort of thing, that this sort of event could really help people,” Devney said.

The 2016 Jingle Jog, which was moved to Mahoney State Park because of increased participation, helped Huntington provide 30 $100 Super Saver gift cards.

This past summer, Huntington held a soccer clinic in conjunction with their partner Fourth Presbyterian Church, who, through one of their pastors, brought in Lincoln East High School soccer players to coach the kids. The clinic drew at least 50 kids every day for a week.

Holiday Headquarters, for many families in the Huntington community, can brighten the holiday season. The trick is finding a way to keep that candle lit throughout the year.

“Throughout a 12 month calendar, we try to have one community outreach event each month,” Devney said. “We feel by doing that, and by pacing it that way, it offers an opportunity for a number of our families and community members to get engaged. Somehow, someway.”

In 2002, about 30 families showed up for Holiday Headquarters, a number that has ballooned to nearly 100 in recent years. Just another testament to the imprint Huntington has made in the outreach process, and tangible evidence of progress.

One of the barometers Devney uses to monitor the school’s impact is mobility rate, or how long, on average, students stay at Huntington.

Huntington’s mobility rate has either improved or remained steady in each of the last six years, despite poverty issues in the area.

“What we know is that the work we are doing has an impact on our kids, their families, and the community,” Devney said. “We’re trying to create an inclusive climate and culture at Huntington that advocates reaching out to others.

“While we can’t prevent everything, some of those families are choosing to stay in the community, and being resilient, because of the school setting,” he said.

So Huntington’s staff won’t stop going above and beyond their call of duty. Not until every stocking is stuffed and every student’s path is set towards a successful future.

“Children are children everywhere,” Couton said. “They deserve to be safe and loved, but they also deserve to be challenged and inspired. Our teachers and staff work relentlessly to make sure school is truly a place for every child, no matter where they’re coming from outside the building.”