December 7, 2011

High school students help save Christmas for hurricane victims


Hurricane Irene took so much from so many islanders, but some Cape Hatteras high school students decided they were not going to let Christmas be one of those things.

They have spent the last three months raising money for holiday decorations for storm victims.

High school seniors and best friends, Foster Mattingly and Victoria Gaskins, wrestled with how they could help the community following the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene, which wiped out dozens of family homes on Aug. 27.

“We knew that Christmas gifts would be taken care of,” said Foster. But she added that Christmas decorations are expensive and an important part of the holiday spirit.  The girls decided that providing holiday decorations would be a different approach and would be important to make the holiday seem normal for those who lost so much. 

This idea was taken to school and became a community service project for the Cape Hatteras Secondary School’s DECA Club, which provides real-world business projects and competitions in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.  Evan Ferguson is the teacher-advisor to the club, which has 24 student members.

Junior classmate Kailee Pieno joined the two seniors as project leader.  All three girls work part-time at Conner’s Supermarket in Buxton.

They envisioned a place full of beautiful Christmas trees, ornaments, wreaths, lights, roping, snowmen, tree skirts, and more where people could come in and pick out as much as they wanted and everything would be free.

The project was named “Irene’s Giving Tree” and culminated with a community event on Monday, Dec. 5, at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Center, which is located in the epicenter of the hurricane damage.

Foster, Kailee, and Victoria set out looking for monetary donations and brand new or gently used Christmas decorations.  The project was mainly advertised through Facebook, and the news of the event spread like wildfire.  The students even set up a table at a fall fishing tournament to speak with visitors.

Donation drop boxes were placed in strategic locations on the island and at a lawyer’s office in Manteo.  RBC bank, Teach’s Lair Marina, Conner’s Supermarket, and several realty companies helped with collecting donations.

Donations poured in from everywhere.  Angela Conner said that some mornings, boxes of decorations were piled up in front of the grocery store’s front door.  Thanks to the power of the social media, contributions came from all over the mid-Atlantic states and even Hawaii. 
All the items were stored in the upstairs of the Conner’s Supermarket warehouse.

“You should have seen it,” says John Conner.  “It was slammed full, packed from end to end.  This is the coolest thing for kids to be doing.”

The girls decided to break the event into two sessions on Dec. 5.  The first two hours would be private and by invitation only.  With the help of Dare County Social Services, they selected 30 of the most affected families to receive an invitation. Most were from the tri-villages.

“We wanted to target families with children,” offered teacher Evan Ferguson.

The later session would be open to the public.  And, again, there would be no charge for anything.

The girls used a large horse trailer and several cars to transport everything from Buxton to Rodanthe.  They filled the spacious area of the community center with beautifully decorated trees and tables covered with decorations and holiday knickknacks, all artfully arranged.  The back room was piled with backup inventory so tables could be restocked during the event.

By the time the event began on Monday, the community building looked like a winter wonderland, a first-class operation with multi-colored lights outlining the walls as the three high school girls emerged, dressed to the hilt in their holiday best.

“We figured we should look nice – adds to the holiday spirit,” said Kailee.

When the first families walked in, it was just like Christmas anywhere.   A young mother ushered in her young children saying, “Looks like a Christmas fantasy land in here.”

And the children acted like children, gravitating towards Christmas teddy bears and snowy figures.  Yes, they were truly under the magical spell of Christmas.

“Walk, son. You are going to fall and get hurt” one young dad called after his child.

Foster, Victoria, and Kailee were there to help people who needed decorating advice or loading help.  As part of the project, they provided 30 plastic tubs for folks to use as a shopping cart and to store the decorations after the holiday.

They instructed people to take what they wanted.  “Get a tree!  Just go crazy!” was the order of the day.

Shoppers wandered around the room with their plastic tubs, filling it with things they wanted.  Some selected items quickly while others were much more methodical, enjoying the event and munching on Christmas cookies made by the Conner family as Christmas music played softly in the background.  There was a steady flow of people.

“It’s weird to be able to just come in and grab stuff.  It is really, really nice,” one father said.

A young girl picked up a large snow globe and held it in her arms, instantly captivated by it.  “I used to collect them before the storm.  Now, I have no idea where they are.”

“This is really, really nice,” said one shopper.  “The people who didn’t come don’t know what they are missing.”

And it was really, really nice.  The project received about $1,500 in monetary donations, and the girls used it very wisely and even had some left over.

“They did a great job of getting new stuff,” their teacher said.  “They chose to spend money on lights, trees stands, and totes mostly.” 

Ace Hardware and Home Depot offered the girls discounts on Christmas decorations.  Port O’ Call Restaurant in Kill Devil Hills donated some very expensive and gorgeous ornaments.  The DECA program from First Flight High School in Nags Head also contributed.

There were 60 Christmas trees for the taking -- 30 freshly cut trees that came with a tree stand, 15 brand new artificial trees, and 15 gently used trees.  David Hughes from Kitty Hawk donated the fresh trees, and Bob Pacitto from New Jersey gave 30 artificial Christmas trees to the drive.

The Hatteras Island Quilters made several beautiful tree skirts and some amazing quilted ornaments.  Kinnakeet Clayworks designed and created special tree ornaments for the event.  Several seasonal distributors for the island also contributed decorations to the cause.

It wasn’t long before the room needed to be restocked with holiday items from the back room as the tables began to thin.

A young man who was leaving with his plastic tote loaded with some holiday spirit said, “This has helped us greatly - helped a lot of people.  Some people had their decorations in storage and are just finding out that they had lost their decorations.”

A graduate of Cape Hatteras High School said, “We never did anything like this when I was in school and that was only two years ago.”

“It was nice to see all of these people,” said Foster.  “We wondered how people would react.  Never thought it would be this big.  People were so excited and kept asking us what they could do to help.”

“It was a DECA chapter event, but it was these three girls that executed it,” said Ferguson.  “Awesome project!”

Victoria, Kailee, Foster and the rest of the DECA club members will travel to Greensboro in March to make a live presentation of their community service event to a panel of judges in a statewide DECA competition.

The leftover decorations were taken over to the Really Really Free Market.

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