Students around the area enjoy reaching out around holidays

After lifting a gray scarf out of a Christmas-themed gift bag, Helen Bucci of Ebensburg reached over to grab the hand of Bishop Carroll Catholic High School sophomore Lucas Hutsky, who said his grandmother knitted the scarf for her.

Others reacted much the same way at the Ebensburg Senior Activities Center along North Julian Street, with gift recipients giving out hugs and holding hands with their teenage visitors.

Students across the region are taking time out from school to give back to the community during the holiday season.

Crystal Himes, the Bellwood-Antis School District’s foundation board president, said she started the B-A “Blue Angels” project in 2000 as a way to teach students about community service by helping area families in need.

The first year, she said, they were able to help one family. But now, it has grown to helping 38 families with 71 foster kids this Christmas.

“A lot of people partner up with us” outside the school and help contribute, she said, but the students also work hard to help everything come together.

Each child receives three toys of their choosing, as well as clothing, undergarments, a coat, shoes, a blanket and a coloring set, Himes said. The family also receives a toiletry basket.

Students help set up trees with tags listing what each child needs throughout the school, similar to the Salvation Army Angel Tree program, and the students can select a child for which to buy the gifts.

Older students help wrap later and volunteers deliver the gifts, which were given to families last week, Himes said.

“From kindergarten to senior year the kids help at different times,” she said, and they all seem to have a sense of pride in being in their volunteerism.

Claysburg-Kimmel High School’s principal secretary, Caroline Smith, said students have been holding special fundraisers this year to help one of their own: Phyllis Knisely and her family, whose Cemetery Road home was severely damaged in a Dec. 11 fire.

Knisely’s two daughters are Claysburg elementary students. Smith said staff paid to dress down for a day, and the special education department hosted a cookie sale to raise funds.

Smith said teacher Michelle Weiler, and her aide, Mary Black, also took orders from community members to bring in extra money.

Another fundraiser was held through an ugly Christmas sweater contest, with proceeds donated to a Claysburg senior, whose father is battling cancer.

Bishop Carroll spokesman and student council adviser Joseph Skura said when students volunteer, it does them as much good as it does the recipients of their kindness.

“The kids talk about it for weeks,” he said, and many of them go back during winter break to continue visiting with the seniors.

Some form a special bond and choose the same senior to buy gifts for year after year, he said.

Looking around at students handing blankets and cards to their new-found friends, Skura said it’s easy to see why many students participate every year.

“The seniors are absolutely overjoyed to see … their teenage visitors,” he said. “It’s really neat to see them smile. It’s really neat to see how happy they are.”

Center manager Tammy Monito said the holidays can be difficult for some of the seniors, and a gift from the students might be the only one they receive.

She said for many seniors, getting visitors is the high point of the Christmas season.

“They’re thrilled,” she said. “They really look forward to it.”

David Maruca and Coleena Markovich, both seniors, said they keep coming back every year because it’s a small act of kindness for a group of people who really deserve it.

Maruca, who has participated every year, said he enjoys spending time with the seniors because he knows how much they appreciate it.

“It’s nice to give back to the older generation,” Maruca said.

Markovich, who has participated for three years, said she has a lot of respect for senior citizens and knows her visit has an impact.

“Some of them might not have as many friends or family,” she said.

Bucci said it isn’t even about getting a gift, although, she said, her scarf is beautiful.

“They’re wonderful,” she said of the students. “It makes you feel like you’re wanted.”

Hutsky said he was happy to give Bucci a gift, and said he plans on coming back for his junior and senior years.

“People need Christmas cheer,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.