Amy Abraham helps a young shopper wrap his gifts.

GR School’s Secret Santa Shop Saved with Assist from Blue Cross

Last week Burton Elementary School’s media center was transformed. Stacks of books gave way to displays of toys, scented lotions, hats and scarfs, ready to be plucked up by discerning young shoppers.

Gift tables included a wide variety of items. In this image, small games and stuffed animals are displayed for purchase.Students excitedly made their way from table to table, carefully selecting just the right gifts for family members and special friends on their lists.

The annual Secret Santa Workshop is a beloved tradition that almost didn’t happen this year, until employees at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan heard the news.

“This year we weren’t going to have it until Blue Cross stepped in and said, ‘we would like to make this happen for you’,” explained Allison Woodside, principal, Burton Elementary.

Throughout the year, many Blue Cross employees regularly volunteer at the school, located on the southwest side of Grand Rapids. Mentors from Blue Cross meet with kids once a week while others donate time reading, tutoring and taking a shift at the summer carnival. The chance to help students with their holiday shopping is something employees looked forward to.

“Volunteering at the Burton Elementary Secret Santa shop has become a part of our holiday traditions here at the Blues,” explained Amy Abraham, team leader, West Michigan/Upper Peninsula Process Improvement and Analysis, BCBSM, who helped put in motion a plan to rescue the event once she found out it could be cancelled.

A $2,000 donation was all it took to ensure the event’s success, along with many, many volunteers. To make this year’s holiday shop a reality, Woodside said about 350 people volunteered – including 35 from Blue Cross – over the five-day event, which allows close to 500 students to select presents for their families.

“Our employees have really embraced Burton through mentoring and this event, so we wanted to make sure it continued,” said Suzanne Miller Allen, director, Community Responsibility, BCBSM. “Because of our existing relationship with Grand Rapids Public Schools, we were able to assist and were thrilled to do so.”

Blue Cross volunteers pose for a picture in Burton Elementary's media center.

Blue Cross volunteers pose for a picture. From left to right: Julie Bitely, Melissa Withrow, Kellie Norton, Amy Abraham, Dennis Halso, Nathan Humme, Derrick Vargo and Wai Jacobs.

Besides Blue Cross, many local companies and organizations such as the Rotary Club of Grand Rapids and Kids’ Food Basket, sent helpers to make sure young shoppers stuck to their budget and checked off every special person on their list. Volunteers from Burton Middle School also volunteered for shifts and high school students from nearby Catholic Central and Innovation Central also pitched in. Parents worked the “cash registers” giving students the full shopping experience.

“It would not happen without the volunteers and without the parent participation that we have,” Woodside said. “It would really be impossible for this to function.”

Kids get a sense of pride from being able to purchase gifts, Woodside said. Kids who weren’t buying for their families were still able to participate by choosing a gift from a special “Santa Bucks” table to be presented during a classroom gift exchange. And, partnering with a volunteer gave students a chance to connect and work on social skills, while sneaking in some valuable math lessons.

“It’s the relationship building, it’s the reasoning part of it – just seeing how the kids work through what they’re going to buy and how much money they have,” Woodside explained.

Blue Cross employee Derrick Vargo poses with his shopper.

Blue Cross employee Derrick Vargo stops for a pose with a Burton Elementary Secret Santa workshop guest.

“I love working with kids,” Abraham said. “Their joy is so contagious and watching them shop for their loved ones and classmates is so uplifting. I love hearing their thought process behind picking the perfect gift. Seeing them take the time to really think about what their mom, dad or sibling would want as a gift is so pure and special. I also love seeing my coworkers interacting with the children – it brings out a side of them that we rarely get to see in the corporate world. Watching them hold a little one’s hand, wrap presents and help them write gift tags is a gift in itself.”

Knowing that her school can count on the community to be there is one of the best parts about Burton Elementary, Woodside said.

“Burton wouldn’t be Burton without the partnerships,” she said.

Beyond Burton, Blue Cross and Blue Care Network support Grand Rapids Public Schools through year-round mentorship volunteer opportunities, drives for books and winter gear, and sponsorship of the annual GRPS Turkey Trot, which helps fund athletics for K-8 students.

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Photo credit: A Healthier Michigan

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