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East students help needy children with Giving Tree

Several students at East High School will be spending at least part of their Thanksgiving weekend Christmas shopping. But instead of buying presents for family or friends, these students will be shopping for a complete stranger. For a child in need.

Several students at East High School will be spending at least part of their Thanksgiving weekend Christmas shopping.
But instead of buying presents for family or friends, these students will be shopping for a complete stranger. For a child in need.
The Giving Tree was set up this week at East in the school's Career Center. The tree is covered with small paper snowmen with a name and age of a child in Duluth and the name of a gift that child wants.
Students like David Kalligher have picked a snowman off the tree and will spend time finding just the right gift. "I feel that it's important that all children deserve to get a good Christmas, especially ones in poverty," Kalligher said.
Not all the children on the tree are from poverty stricken families.
Some of the names are chosen at random from Nettleton, Lincoln Park and Grant Elementary schools. Others come from teacher or social workers recommendations. And even more names come from Women's Transitional Housing.
Many area children will get presents this year because of East's Giving Tree. Nearly 200 are students from Nettleton. Once the list of names is established, the school sends out letter to the parents explaining that the child will be receiving a gift from East's Giving Tree. Some parents decline.
"I have had parents say they're getting help from other organizations, and that they don't need the extra gifts," Carol Jouppi, community liaison at Nettleton said. "Then we find another student. I wish we could give to everyone."
Jouppi and Anita Lisowski work together to coordinate the program at Nettleton.
By using a random drawing, Jouppi and Lisowski avoid having the same children participate in the program year after year. And sometimes, in the randomness, a gift gets to a family that needs it most.
"Sometimes a middle class family needs it more, because they don't qualify for other programs," Jouppi said. "We happened to send a letter at a time when a parent had just lost a job. When she received the letter she called and said it could not have come at a nicer time for her. That was really one less thing for her to worry about."
The Giving Tree began seven years ago at the suggestion of East guidance counselor, Mark Zawacki.
"Being one of the counselors, you have freedom of looking at society in general," Zawacki said. "It's time that we teach our kids the values of giving to the less fortunate. We've all been blessed in so many different ways. It truly is much greater to give than to receive."
With this thought in mind, Zawacki came up with the idea for the Giving Tree. For years East has participated in "Project Joy," a giving program at the school to benefit the elderly. The Giving Tree seemed like a good match so that area children might have a happier Christmas. That's a good motivate for Kalligher.
"It's good to see a smile on a child's face, especially around the Christmas season," he said.
And it doesn't matter that he doesn't actually get to see the smile. These gifts are all given anonymously.
"I know that the child feels happy and received something that means a lot to them," Kalligher said. "I don't see it, but I feel it and I know it, that they are happy. And it's the thought that counts."
The thoughtfulness of the students who participate in the giving tree goes beyond buying the gift on the tag they've chosen. The students sometimes buy more than one gift for their chosen person, tucking in little extras as a surprise. They also wrap their gifts in sometimes elaborate designs.
"You should see the gifts that come back wrapped," Zawacki said. "They are just gorgeous."
The students sometimes write letters to the child they've chosen and include them with their present.
"It's very personal and very nice," Connie Larson, Career Center coordinator said. "I wish they could meet the kids, but in another way this is nice."
Dolls, games, Hot wheels, stuffed animals, sports gear. The East Giving Tree has all kinds of kids wanting all kinds of different presents. Sometimes students will go together on a higher ticket item, although expensive gifts are not the point of Giving Tree.
After the students have had a chance to pick over the snowmen on the tree and choose the one they want, teachers and other staff members take a card themselves to make sure all the requests are filled. This is one homework assignment the students never forget about. They have a 100 percent return.
"We don't have any students who forget," Larson said. "One year, someone dropped their snowman in the hallway. Someone else found it and went out and bought the gift because they didn't want anyone left out."
They found out later that the first student also got the gift and brought it in without the card so they had one extra gift.
The students will be shopping for the gifts this weekend and bringing them in to the school in the coming weeks where they will be displayed in one of the showcases. When all the gifts are collected, they will be sorted by school and delivered.
The Giving Tree is in East's Career Center, which may seem to be an unlikely spot, but Zawacki says it really makes sense.
"The inception of the program was from the guidance department and career center volunteers and coordinators," he said. "It's connected with our department, and that sends a message to our kids, too: If you have troubles in your life, you're always welcome. Counselors are all about giving. It fits well."
Jennifer Simonson is a Budgeteer News health and news reporter. Contact her at 723-1207 or at jsimonson@duluth.com .

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