Not home for Christmas

Buddy the elf holding a snow globe containing JMU's Wilson HallImagine you’re 6-years-old, and it’s Christmas morning. You wake up in a house not your own, surrounded by people you barely know. That could be the plight of some 198 children in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County who will not be at home on Christmas morning this year. They will be somewhere else.

They are in foster care. And every year, there are more of them. In 2008, 65 area children entered foster care and this year, so far, there are 99.

Foster care is a stopgap. Children arrive in foster homes for various reasons — dangerous domestic situations, parents unable to provide care and medical or legal situations. Each child is unique. But they share one characteristic: They are in transition.

Foster care programs, like the one run by Harrisonburg-Rockingham Department of Social Services — and supported by dozens of foster parents in the community — provide stability in the lives of children who have experienced upheaval and who are often very vulnerable.

Their lives, quite frankly, are far removed from the average college student. Still, a group of students at JMU is paying attention to these children, amidst the hubbub of their own crazy lives, filled with classes and exams and friendships and activities.

Thirteen years ago, a group of JMU Student Ambassadors (student leaders who conduct campus tours and support the university in multiple ways) organized a concert to raise money for our area’s foster children. That year, the concert held in Grafton-Stovall Theatre raised $600. It was dubbed Operation Santa Claus.

The concert was a way to reach out to area children and to enrich their lives a little. It was a chance for some of our community’s most privileged — college students — to touch and perhaps change the lives of some of the most vulnerable. In the intervening years, Operation Santa Claus has become a tradition — one of change and one of engagement. Last year’s concert raised $4,300 for local foster children.

Next Monday, Dec. 3, is the 2012 Operation Santa Claus concert. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Wilson Hall. The concert will feature 14 performing groups, which by itself means OSC reaches even deeper into the Madison Community. The groups performing are: The Madison Project, Into Hymn, Madison Dance, Bluestones, Lexie Hayden, Overtones, Mozaic Dance, Note-oriety, Low Key, New and Improv’d, Lad in a Battle, Exit 245, the Dukettes and Exit 247 B-Flat Project.

Co-chairs of Operation Santa Claus, Rachel Ostroff (’13), a communication studies major from Trumbull, Conn., and Mike Ferrante (’15), a marketing major from Ramsey, N.J., are hoping for a big turnout again this year.

Operation Santa Claus, though, is far more than a single yearly concert. Each month the group has planned and carried out an activity with and for the children, Rachel says. Students participated in a picnic for foster and adoptive families in September where they shared cookies and flag football and soccer. “It is a way to interact with the kids,” she says. “It’s a way to interact with the community.”

In October, the Operation Santa Claus ambassadors shared a meal with the children and area social workers in D-Hall. They’ve planned a family movie night with everyone’s favorite giant ELF, Buddy, and sold CandyCaneGrams. They’ve also purchased Christmas gifts for 33 foster children. “For some, it’s the only gift they’ll receive,” Rachel says.

The Santa team is also hosting a gingerbread house building contest. Campus groups can buy, build and decorate the confections. Then the best will be chosen through “votes” — contributions to buckets in front of each house.

All the proceeds from all the activities, Rachel says, go to these most vulnerable children.

Rachel is passionate about Operation Santa Claus. It’s not even about Christmas, she says. “It’s about the meaning behind it.”

It’s about working and giving and planning and reaching out and lifting up and engaging some very special members of our community. It’s about changing lives.

The Buddy the Elf illustration with Wilson Hall so cleverly enclosed in the snow globe was created by Kara Zawacki (’14) from Westminster, Md.
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