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Lester Park students bring Christmas cheer to Duluth hospitals

Third-grader Trevor Jouppi, 8, of Duluth gives a Christmas tree to Andrea Orest, her newborn Rowan, and son Eldan, all of Grand Marais, at the Birthplace at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. Lester Park students presented decorated miniature Christmas trees to patients. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Angela Waldron of Two Harbors receives a Christmas tree from kindergarten student Cora Stevenson on Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 20, 2016. Lester Park Elementary School students presented decorated miniature Christmas trees to patients at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

A touch of Christmas arrived at Duluth's hospitals on Tuesday in the hands of 18 Lester Park Elementary School students.

Accompanied by teachers, chaperones and hospital staff, the children — one from each classroom — presented the patients with tabletop artificial Christmas trees decorated with ornaments they and their classmates had made.

The school's students raised more than $1,300 for the project, said Sue Baker, a kindergarten teacher at Lester Park.

"It's a service learning project, so the kids don't just ask their parents for money, they do chores at home," Baker said. "And then instead of keeping their money for themselves, they bring it in and we purchase the trees and then if we have any extra money, that goes toward gifts for the patients."

The so-called Giving Tree project, in its 14th year, started with Baker's son Robbie, then 7 and a second-grader at Lester Park and now in his second year of college.

Kindergartner Cora Stevenson carries a Christmas tree into a patient's room Tuesday afternoon. (Clint Austin / News Tribune)"I asked my son what he wanted to do for a family giving project, and he said we should bring trees and gifts to the patients in the hospital," Baker related.

There was a back story: Two years earlier, Robbie's younger brother, then just a year old, had spent 10 days in the burn center. Robbie saw how the doctors and nurses cared for his little brother, and he wanted to give back, Sue Baker said.

She wasn't yet a teacher at Lester Park, but Baker took the idea to the school's principal who shared it with the staff, "who welcomed the project with open arms," she said.

It has been a holiday tradition at the school ever since.

On Tuesday, the school bus delivered the festively garbed Lester Park kids and adults first to Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center and then to St. Luke's hospital. At St. Mary's, third-grader Trevor Jouppi and kindergartener Cora Stevenson took a crowded elevator up to the hospital's birthing center along with chaperone Gayle Friday, who coordinates Lester Park's after-school program.

Friday was along for the trip for the third year, and said it has produced the same effect on her each time: "I cry."

Angela Waldron teared up, too, as she described the tree hand-delivered to her by 5-year-old Cora a few minutes earlier.

Lester Park students raised money and made ornaments while making Christmas trees for hospital patients. (Clint Austin / DNT)Pregnant with her fourth child, Waldron learned on Monday night that she could be the recipient of a Christmas tree the next day. But the experience was more than she imagined, Waldron said.

"I was not expecting this, or for a little girl to come in, and she's so cute — just everything," said Waldron, 25. "It was totally a different situation than I anticipated."

She'll keep the tree and share its story at future family Christmases, Waldron said.

"It is definitely going to be something that I take out every year now, and it definitely makes me want to give back as well," she said. "It's a great feeling."

It's a great feeling for the givers, too, said Baker, who talked about how excited the children get as they raise money to purchase the trees and as they make the ornaments.

"It's nice especially at this time of the year when it's all about me, me, me," Baker said. "It's not right now. These kids are, like, 'This is so fun,' to give to ... the patients that they haven't even seen yet."

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