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Santa's helpers make students' holidays (Photo gallery, video)





Santa’s helpers came in many forms as District schools edged toward the holidays.

People like physical education teacher Jeff Szwagulak, U.S. Post Office employees and the owners and crew of Ohio City’s TownHall restaurant were among those who lavished kindness and generosity on CMSD students and their families just before Christmas.

For the third straight year, Szwagulak made sure that every child at Artemus Ward PreK-8 School, more than 600 in all, received a gift.

Santa Claus, played by a fellow teacher’s husband, delivered the presents to classrooms Friday, merrily spreading joy as went. At the first stop, Santa was mobbed by excited preschoolers, all dressed in their pajamas on the last school day before winter break.

Szwagulak began the tradition after asking some students what they were getting for Christmas. The sobering reply: Their families could not afford gifts.

This year, the teacher raised $3,000 from a GoFundMe account and went shopping at Target, Wal-Mart and Five Below, picking items based on his knowledge of the kids’ likes and recommendations from store clerks. He organized a wrapping party with parents.

Kerry Adams, Juan DeJesus and Lyniece Turner, new community engagement officers for the Cleveland Police Department’s 1st District, added a load of a gifts that filled an SUV. The three officers, who came for the distribution, visit the school twice a month to interact with the children and build rapport.

Szwagulak started shopping in November and bought the last of the presents Thursday.

“When 4 o’clock arrives on the day we hand out the gifts, I’m glad it’s over,” he said. “It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.”

On Thursday, a half-dozen Postal Service employees and a like number of school staff handed out 230 bicycles and other gifts for younger students at East Clark PreK-8 School in Collinwood. The older ones received gift cards.

For at least 20 years, the Angel Network, made up of employees from the Post Office’s central processing center and various stations, have selected at least one CMSD school and purchased gifts for the students. Workers eagerly grab up the tags listing wants, said Lillian Paige, manager of distribution and operations.

Postal worker Darryl Dobbins, wearing a Santa hat and fake beard, drove the truck that delivered the presents. “Merry Christmas,” he jovially told the kids, “and be good.”

“For some of them, other than this, they might not have a gift,” Principal Charlene Hilliard said. “I hope we made their two weeks off more pleasant.”

TownHall made the holidays more pleasant for 22 families at Paul L. Dunbar School in Ohio City on Friday, filling wish lists that included items as basic as laundry detergent, bleach and paper towels. When the lists came back with such simple asks, “We were all in tears,” said Susan Brunecz, an instructional coach at the school.

The school has a year-round relationship with TownHall, a popular dining spot on nearby West 25th Street. That includes making sure students and their families are guests at “Feed the Need,” the annual serving of free turkey dinners at Townhall just before Thanksgiving. "They do so much for us," Principal Sophia Piperis said.

The Christmas giveaway was the latest gesture. Brian Day, vice president of marketing for TownHall and other restaurants in the Corporate Management Group, said more than 30 employees handled the shopping.

“Our staff really embraced it,” Day said. “They loved it.”

Maria, who has three children attending Dunbar, was laid off in November and now works two jobs, one busing tables, the other as a cashier. She praised Dunbar’s relationship with families and said her children thrive there.

A woman named Diane, who has two children at Dunbar, nearly shouted for joy as she left the school Friday with toiletries and household products.

“This is so amazing; I am so grateful,” said. “Now, with couple of dollars I have left, I can buy boots for my boys.”

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