Fourth-graders forgo gift exchange, give back to other kids


A talk about giving of your time, talents and treasures stuck with a Cortland Elementary School fourth-grade classroom.

Tonja Couch, executive director of Jackson County United Way, visited Holly Birdsong’s class the week of Thanksgiving and discussed the importance of philanthropy.

Birdsong said she had heard about Couch talking to other classes and thought it would be a great message for her 18 students.

When it came time for the class to do a gift exchange for Christmas, the students asked Birdsong about an alternative project.

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They remembered Couch talking about Seymour Middle School students cleaning up Shields Park, and that created a spark.

“The kids said, ‘We could probably do something, too,’” Birdsong said. “I said, ‘Well, maybe we could come up with something to do for Christmas.’”

Right away, they came up with a list of about five ideas, and Birdsong wrote them on the board. She then had them vote and decide what to do.

“It was pretty unanimous after it got up on the board that they wanted to donate to kids in the hospital,” Birdsong said.

She reached out to Alyssa Gentry, nurse manager of the Schneck Medical Center pediatrics department, to see what they needed for kids staying in the hospital for a certain amount of time.

Birdsong shared the list with her students. That included toys, crayons, markers, coloring books and Play-Doh. Gentry also said DVDs were an option to restock the collection at the hospital.

The students then went out to buy the items and put them in gift bags.

“The original plan was to spend whatever they want to spend for the gift exchange, which is usually a $5 gift,” Birdsong said. “Then after they went out shopping, I had kids bringing in four or five bags at a time, and they said, ‘We just wanted to get all of this stuff,’ so they were pretty excited.”

On Monday night, Birdsong joined her students and their parents in delivering the gifts to the pediatrics department on the third floor of the Seymour hospital.

“I think they were more excited to go shop for the things for the kids than they were for themselves,” she said. “I even heard kids coming in after that saying, ‘We don’t need these $5 gifts that we exchange with each other anyway. The kids that we buy for are going to like these things a lot more than we would.’”

Gentry said the department typically has a group donate gifts around Chrismastime each year. Last year, the 4-H Junior Leaders did that, and just recently, a local sorority donated three red wagons for children to ride in around the hospital.

She said the gifts usually last for a whole year.

“It just depends on what our volumes are going to be,” Gentry said. “We never know how many kids we’re going to see, but we love being able to give the kid a present, just something for them to play with while they are here.”

The unit has five rooms and serves ages newborn to 18.

While kids stay at the hospital, the staff members like to give them something to occupy their time, and then they take it with them when they go home.

“It gives them a sense of normalcy,” Gentry said. “There’s nothing normal about being in the hospital. Especially for a child, it’s frightening for them, so when we’re able to give them something that they might have at home or a toy that they’ve seen in the store, it kind of makes them feel a little bit more normal.”

Gentry said she appreciates any donations the department receives.

“I love getting to see the community get involved,” she said. “I know we’re a small unit, and a lot of people probably don’t realize how small we are. … We really don’t always have the budget to go out and buy brand-new toys for these kids, so when we are able to give them something that they can take home with them instead of just having to keep it here at the hospital, it means that much more to them.”

She said it’s great the fourth-graders understand the importance of thinking of others.

“I thought it was fantastic,” Gentry said. “It has always been older kids, high school age, that come and reach out to us, so to have a fourth-grade class that’s willing to give up their classroom gift exchange to donate toys, that really meant a lot.”

Fourth-graders Joel Roberts, Jada Miller and Alexander Bryant said the information Couch shared with the class remained on their minds.

“Basically, she was talking about when you get gifts, you shouldn’t just talk about yourself. You should try to give back to the community,” Joel said.

“You should always give to people and not just keep all of it yourself. I think it’s important because some people get a lot of stuff that other people don’t get,” Jada said.

“I remember her saying to share and give to others and be kind and don’t be greedy and selfish,” Alexander said.

They all agreed it was great to see the class come together for the project.

“I hope the kids get better,” Joel said of those who will receive the gifts. “I feel bad for them to have to even stay here for Christmas.”

Jada said her class donated to an Angel Tree last year, so she was happy to do something else for others.

“Kids in the hospital may not get all of the Christmas gifts they want because they’ll be in the hospital over Christmas,” she said. “They’ll get gifts even though they are in the hospital. It felt really good to do it.”

Alexander was glad to help, too.

“It felt nice to actually do something great for other kids, to know that they will be here having toys to play with while they are waiting,” he said.

Even though the kids receiving a gift may not know who donated it, fourth-grader Hannah Baker said it will make them feel happy to know someone cares about them.

“It feels good that you can do something nice for people who aren’t feeling good and are sick,” she said. “I’m just happy that they have these things to help them while they’re here and when they go home.”

Birdsong said she had many of her students in class when she taught first grade, and she had someone speak to them about philanthropy.

This, however, was the first time a class wanted to do a project instead of a gift exchange.

“I have a good group this year,” she said. “Whenever other adults have come to us and their parents have said, ‘It’s really neat what you are doing for these kids,’ really, it was their idea. I just helped them. They let me come up with connections to make their giving what they wanted to do. I’m just thankful to their parents and everyone else to help get them here and go out and get the gifts that they wanted to get.”

Birdsong said she hopes it inspires the kids to continue to give to others when they can.

“I think they would have done all of the other causes had they been able to,” she said. “There were a lot of things that they wanted to do, and I’m guessing in the years to come, they’ll accomplish some more of those because they were pretty excited about it.”

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