It’s never too early to start planning for Christmas. It’s also never too early to be inspired by a heartwarming Christmas story.
Every Christmas season, a group of students at Father Mercredi High School in Fort McMurray plan, organize, and oversee their annual Santas Anonymous campaign — a program that raises funds and collects donations to provide children and families in need with a holiday hamper that includes toys, a grocery store gift card, and additional support for infants or seniors. The program is over 30 years old, and it’s run by the students with the support of school staff.
“We begin planning and fundraising in October of each year,” says Santas Anonymous Coordinator Jennifer Pope. “We do many fundraisers, such as a teddy toss with the local AJHL Oil Barons hockey team, an annual market in which we rent tables to local vendors, a pancake breakfast, a Middle School dance, and more.”
Ms. Pope is a social studies teacher at the high school. She has been involved with the student-led program for the past 11 years.
Their major fundraiser is their annual Miracle Marathon, where they partner with Save On Foods, a local supermarket, as well as two local radio stations. The radio stations go live on location at all Save on Foods locations in Fort McMurray and collect donations.
Last Christmas, they raised over $100,000 in total. Ms. Pope estimates that around 150 students are involved in the Santas Anonymous program each year.
“The students who take part in Santas absolutely love this program,” she says. “I think a lot of things draw them in: their big hearts which make them want to help people in need, their desire to be a part of something that’s so important to the identify of our school and to the community, the fun times we have organizing everything, and becoming part of a smaller Father Merc family.”
A Student-Led Initiative
Nazareth Charoo is in Grade 12 at Father Mercredi, and he is one of four student Head Leaders.
“When I first came to Fort McMurray in Grade 10, I didn’t know much about the program,” he says. “Then one day a couple other students invited me to come do some packing and have some fun. I wanted to get involved in the community and see what Fort Mac was all about. I had an amazing amount of fun, so I kept going all week. Eventually, one of the teachers approached me and asked if I wanted to have a bigger role the next year. So, I got a couple referrals and I was in.”
Rilee White is also in Grade 12 and one of the student Head Leaders. Unlike Nazareth, Rilee’s family has a history of participating in the program.
“I’ve lived in Fort McMurray my whole life,” he says. “My older sister was a leader in Santas Anonymous when she was a student here, and she basically told me when I was in Grade 6 that I had to get involved with Santas Anonymous. She told me that it’s one of the best things you can do for your community, and it gets you involved. She’s been a really good role model for me just by recommending it and telling me how awesome it is.”
As Head Leaders, Nazareth and Rilee do it all. They help plan and organize, provide information, pack the hampers, mentor the younger students, delegate tasks, stay after school to prepare presentations for business and other partners, and so much more.
“There are endless roles involved,” says Nazareth. “We do whatever needs doing.”
Each year, Santas Anonymous has a priest come in to do a liturgy and bless all the hampers before they are sent out. Rilee says that it’s always a very powerful experience.
“It’s a very good time to reflect on our religion, doing good in our community, and sharing that with the Lord,” he says.
Nazareth says that he loves how Santas Anonymous lets him live out gospel values.
“It’s nice to know that I’m able to help and portray my faith in a way that’s really impactful in my community,” he says. “It’s just an amazing thing that I’m able to partake in.”
Both students say that the connections and relationships they’ve formed while being involved in the program are one of the best parts about. Nazareth pinpointed one moment from this past year’s campaign that was one of his favourites.
“During our Supermarket Spree, there was a turkey bowling event, and one of the other Head Leaders got a strike” he recalls. “It was just a surreal moment. We all got up and let out a big cheer — everyone noticed us. And to see all the businesses there, all the adults there, to know that they’re all supporting us in many ways other than monetary donations was just amazing. And seeing how the community comes together to help one another is great.”
Every hour these students dedicate to Santas Anonymous is out of the goodness of their heart. Their dedication and charitable spirit are incredible, says Ms. Pope.
“I am so proud of our students, especially the leaders,” she says. “There’s always such a negative opinion of teenagers in the public, but I am lucky enough to see the amazing things they do for the community out of the goodness of their hearts. I cannot say enough positive things about them. They have a passion for helping the less fortunate, and even when they’re exhausted, they do it all with a smile. They are really making a difference.”
Nazareth has one final message he wanted to get out into the world.
“Get involved. Do what you can. Every little bit counts. Go join Santas Anonymous.”