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Sag Harbor Students Lend a Helping Hand – and Mitten

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Students in Susan Raebeck's Kindergarten class stand in front of the Mitten Line.

Students in Susan Raebeck’s Kindergarten class stand in front of the Mitten Line.

By Tessa Raebeck

While her classmates were asking for iPads and Xboxes, there was only one thing on the young girl’s list: a Christmas tree. Her family had never had one.

After making her one-item list in kindergarten last year, the Sag Harbor Elementary School student received lights, a stand and her family’s first tree. This holiday season, they will have their second.

The gifts were made possible through The Mitten Line, a longstanding tradition of the Sag Harbor School District that enables students, families and community members to provide holiday gifts to those in the district who are less fortunate.

School counselor Michelle Grant renamed the custom after a short story she wrote explaining anonymous gift giving and encouraging students to go a step further by taking something off their own wish lists.

“Suddenly,” reads the poem, “I realized how I could show how much I care. I could take something off my wish list and buy a gift instead to share.”

Grant, who colleague Nina Landi calls “the Mother Teresa of Sag Harbor,” runs every aspect of the gift drive, from pinpointing families in need to delivering presents to their homes.

On the wall outside the elementary school gymnasium are hundreds of “mittens,” paper cutouts with descriptions of students and their desired gifts. One mitten asks for Legos for an 8-year-old girl. Another, “Boy, Age 6, Gloves” lies alongside “Girl, Age 16, Skinny jeans.”

Families and faculty members pick mittens from the line, buy the presents and return them to school unwrapped. Grant then delivers them along with wrapping paper, so parents can see the presents and wrap them on their own before giving them to their kids.

With 18 families receiving gifts, a total of 43 kids in grades kindergarten through 12 are represented on the Mitten Line.

Some families are already identified as needing extra financial support, while others come forward during the holidays. All transactions are completely anonymous; only Grant knows which families are involved.

Teachers help identify kids whose families may be in need, although many parents are hesitant to sign up.

School counselor Michelle Grant helps students transport donated gifts.

School counselor Michelle Grant helps students transport donated gifts.

“That’s the hardest part,” says Grant. “There are people who I know [who need help], or I’ll even offer, and they’re like, ‘No, we’re okay.’ And they are okay — for them they’re okay. But we really just want to do something that says, ‘if we can do this, you’ll just have a little extra come January, February, if you need something.’ Some families are hesitant to do that and I understand and we have to respect that; but that’s the hardest part.”

The community will give over 500 gifts this year through the Mitten Line.

Every child receives a stocking with toiletries, books, socks, pajamas, a hat, gloves, a scarf and basic school supplies.

They are also given two or three special gifts, which are determined by lists provided by the family and teachers’ ideas on what their students might like.

Every contribution comes from the teachers and families of Sag Harbor. Grant tries to limit costs to under $20, but she keeps a separate list of more expensive items (bicycles, Kindles, etc.) for when people donate large sums of cash or ask for the opportunity to purchase a larger gift.

Last year, one family was given a full night in New York City, including Jitney tickets, restaurant meals and hotel accommodations.

A fifth grade class has been collecting money all year in preparation for the Mitten Line. With money earned from doing chores and recycling bottles, the class was able to pick its own mitten to fulfill.

In the 16 years she’s been running it, Grant has seen the drive — and the financial disparity between Sag Harbor’s families — grow substantially.

Donating within their own school makes the needs of others — as well as the rewards of giving — more tangible, she said, because students “really know that everything stays for kids in our schools.”

“Our families are so generous,” said Grant. “All the families, not just the families that have a lot, even the families that are on the line — those kids want to help. Everybody wants to help and do something.”

Mitten Line

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Some parents look forward to the holiday season, scrambling to buy gifts for friends and family, buying decorations and spending money on yards of wrapping paper. For them, this is a fantastic time of the year. But for others, holiday shopping is a dreaded event. This year, especially, it has become difficult for those with limited funds to make Christmas special for their kids.

For those with children in Sag Harbor Elementary School who cannot afford to purchase gifts this year, the school provides some relief through their “mitten line” — a popular holiday giving program that allows students to choose a paper mitten off a corkboard in the school which describes a child and the gifts they desire.

The mitten line started as a previous program called “The Giving Tree” — named after a popular children’s book by Shel Silverstein. Guidance counselor Eileen Kochanasz, who now works at Pierson High School, began the program through the elementary school guidance office nearly 20 years ago. Current elementary school counselor Michelle Grant renamed the program “The Mitten Line” after a short story that she wrote. In her rhyming story, Grant outlines how a child finds a mitten with the wishes of another child written on it. The child then feels proud on Christmas Day, having helped make Christmas better for someone else.

“We receive a wish list from the parents,” said Grant, explaining how the mitten line process works. Parents are found using school registration documentation or other information that indicates a family may be in need of financial assistance, especially at this time of year.

“Some of the parents contact me,” Grant said. “I am the only one who knows who is getting the gifts.”

“We ask the kids to bring in the gifts unwrapped so that we can give them to the parents unwrapped,” she said and added. “We like the parents to feel involved, and they prefer to wrap the gifts themselves and if they need it — we give them the wrapping paper.”

Grant said this year there were 275 mittens that were hung in the hallway at the school, representing a total of 18 families in the district who will receive the gifts. This year, according to Grant, there are 30 kids among the families and they will each receive eight presents.

Grant also said that each child gets certain staple items — like new pajamas, a hat, gloves or scarf, a book, and an arts and crafts item.

“Sometimes there are bigger ticket items like a new bike,” Grant said, “And we can get those from donations by the Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) and Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH).

“Its not easy for the parents,” she said, “It’s really hard to get the parents to ask for help and it can take time. Sometimes it’s situational or a recent divorce, a single parent or a medical issue.” 

Grant collects all the gifts in her office, and then said that she privately meets with the parents at their work, home, or street corner to hand them the gifts.