BATAVIA – Whenever Christmas rolled around, Bob Miller would listen to his father reflect on melancholy memories of the holiday.
His father, Henry, grew up as an orphan and never was adopted. And he never got any Christmas gifts growing up, either. Miller said he always found that bothersome, and shortly after his father died, he started the tradition of raising money to buy gifts for children at Mooseheart Child City and School, near Batavia.
“I do it in memory of my dad,” he said. “I think he’d be proud.”
Miller, principal at Haines Middle School in St. Charles, has help from his students, who started fundraising in August to purchase gifts and gift cards for students.
Miller made his annual trip Friday to Mooseheart with the “Haines Holiday Helpers,” made up of 20 students, to hand out gifts to more than 200 students. Through a walk-a-thon and selling doughnuts and mums, students raised $7,258 in the past four months to purchase presents for students at Mooseheart, the largest residential child care facility in the state.
The tradition started nine years ago when Miller was principal at St. Charles East High School. Students in woodworking shop used to make toys and gifts that later were auctioned off, raising as much as $9,000. That tradition continued when Miller became principal at Haines two years ago.
With the help of Santa Claus and Geoffrey the Giraffe from Toys R Us, students distributed toys to each Mooseheart student from preschool through high school. They handed out Furby toys, Nintendo games, blocks and even a princess dress complete with a tiara.
“The tradition means a whole heck of a lot, and it doesn’t go unnoticed,” said Gary Urwiler, principal and superintendent at Mooseheart.
Urwiler said he didn’t know what to expect the first year Miller delivered gifts, but said Mooseheart students probably look forward to the tradition each year. He said some students were young when Miller started delivering Christmas presents and now are in high school.
He said what he likes about the tradition is that Mooseheart students may not know the people who hand out the gifts, but they know there are people who care about them.
“It’s not easy being away from home,” Urwiler said. “This is assurance that people truly do care. They give their time and effort, and it falls in line with [our motto], ‘Enter to learn, leave to serve.’ “
Laura Zefo, guidance counselor at Mooseheart, said she has watched students accept gifts year after year from Miller and his students. She said it’s nice Haines students can see Mooseheart students accept their gifts, but it’s also good that Mooseheart students see the students who worked to raise money for them.
“There are a lot of nice gifts and gift cards,” she said. “That’s a lot of hard work. To see these kids doing that – it’s pretty selfless.”
Miller is retiring at the end of the school year, and he’s not sure whether the tradition will continue, at least at Haines. But he said the past nine years have boiled down to what he calls the “three C’s,” which stand for curriculum, community service and, of course, Christmas.
The best part of the yearly tradition, he said, is spreading Christmas joy.
“I think it’s just the fact that we’re bringing happiness to kids that maybe wouldn’t have an opportunity to get a gift,” he said.