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St. John’s youth group offers gifts for children

There’s nothing quite like experiencing the joy of Christmas through the eyes of a child.
You could see it as 11-month-old Hector Sanchez Jr. gazed up into the face of Santa Claus. You could see it as Bianca Sanchez, 12, and her sisters Ruby, 7, and Adri, 4, each picked out a gift for their mother, and Bianca carefully wrote their names on a decorated paper bag.
For about 15 years, St. John’s Lutheran Church has provided gifts for children in the area through the Salvation Army. Since 2003, the high school youth group has hosted an Angel Tree party.
On Saturday, the youth group welcomed some 130 children with their parents and caregivers, about 200 people altogether. The fellowship hall was abuzz with all the sights and sounds and yummy smells of the season.
The Rev. Rhodes Woolly, the church’s senior pastor, greeted folks at the door and directed them to tables laden with all sorts of snacks, sandwiches and sweets. Danielle Kosanovich, the church’s diaconal minister for youth and outreach, directed the young people to their various tasks, and was thrilled to use her Spanish in talking with Maria Calzada and her sons Jesus, 6, and Erick, 20 months.
“The best part for me was, when we were walking out to leave, a little boy said to me, ‘This is the best day of my life,’” Kosanovich said.
The project is near and dear to St. John’s member Sandra Gray, who’s participated since its inception.
“I know it means something to people,” Gray said last week. “I talked to a lady with three children who was worried about Christmas. She said, ‘I opened my invitation and I started to cry.’ I always feel good about this project.”
Gray works with the Salvation Army to invite families who have submitted applications for assistance. This year, the organization asked if its food giveaway could also take place at the party. Boy Scouts from the church’s Troop 443 were glad to help, adding popcorn to the large, clear plastic bags of non-perishable food. Youth group members helped families take the food bags to the car, along with giant bags full of gifts for each child. Members of the congregations had the opportunity to purchase gifts by selecting tags from angel trees around the campus.
But, Woolly said, it’s not just a time to give gifts. Rather, it’s the chance to share the true story of Christmas.
“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the ultimate Christmas gift,” he said.
Some two dozen youth group members volunteered wherever they were needed. Matt Woolly, John Yang and Connor Kyles took turns reading books to young guests at the story stable. Neegbeah Reeves and Dave Roof, the church’s cubmaster, helped children make various arts and crafts. Still more youth worked in the gift room, helping young guests pick out and wrap gifts for their parents or caregivers.
Carter Woolly strolled down the long gift table with Bianca, Ruby and Adri.
“Does your mom like coffee?” Carter asked, picking up a coffee mug.
Bianca shook her head “no.”
“Does she like angels?” he asked again, picking up a candle holder.
Yes, the girls agreed.
“Let’s wrap it up!” Carter said.
Nearby at a round table, Georgia Kirchin wrapped a gift for Nicholas Jones, 3, whose chin was covered in sugar.
“Doesn’t that look great?” Georgia said when the present was ready. “I think your mom’s gonna really like that.”
“That’s my present, right over there,” said Kayden Weeks, who selected gifts for his mom, Yulandra. “Ma, look! Here are your presents!”
“Merry Christmas!” David Derrick told the children, as they left the gift room to go back to the fellowship hall.
That’s where there was a long line to visit Santa, who sat up on the stage in the fellowship hall, and bore a striking resemblance to Jim Taylor.
While brothers Haden and Bryson Stewart happily sat on Santa’s lap, Memphis, 2, would have no part.
“Next year, next year,” Santa said.
Grandparents Denise and Martin Kluttz are raising the three boys. The boys all selected gifts for their dad, she said.
Back in the fellowship hall, Nicholas had rejoined his parents, Dixie and Steven, and older brothers Bradley, 9, and Lucas, 11. He was having a good time spinning around with Lucas until he fell and bumped his head. His dad scooped him up and comforted him. Nicholas’ tears didn’t last too long.
Every year, Gray works on the Angel Tree project with enthusiasm and passion. It’s a project that draws the congregation together, she said.
Georgia said this was her third “official” party, although the high-school junior has worked with the project since her older brother, Zack, was in the youth group.
“I love it!” she said. “I like all of it. The kids give their parents a gift, and the gift keeps giving. It really makes you feel so much more appreciative of what you have.”
“Children have that memory of being cared about this Christmas,” Gray said. “These kids are important. It’s been a great thing.”
When the party ended, Kosanovich and the youth group gathered in a circle to pray for all the families who had come to church that afternoon, that their lives would be filled with joy.
“It was really good for them to put faces with those prayers,” Kosanovich said.

Susan Shinn is communications assistant at St. John’s Lutheran Church.

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