As district schools prepared for Winter Break this month, final exams and end-of-semester activities weren’t the only items on the calendar. Across Knox County, students, families and school employees took time to give — and receive — gestures of kindness in the holiday spirit.
At Austin-East Magnet High School, ELA teacher Skikila Smith — known to her students as “Ms. Sky” — has been coordinating an informal holiday shoe drive since joining the Roadrunner family as an intern in 2017.
Smith said that when she lost her children’s father at the age of 21, her family benefited from local Angel Tree programs that provided holiday gifts, and she is also grateful for all the people who supported her when she got her master’s degree at the age of 42.
The shoe drive is a way to give back and help students in need put their best foot forward, and Smith said A-E teachers help to identify potential recipients.
“It would not be possible without a teacher that is looking to cultivate the entire human, and uplift the entire family,” she added.
In some cases, the effort to assist families in need has been adjusted because of COVID-19. LeighAnna Colgrove, a Farragut High School parent, coordinates a Giving Tree program that supports families at four schools in that community.
Colgrove said that in the past, the program would provide a clothing gift bag to families and give them a chance to pick a donated toy. Because of COVID, organizers last year adjusted the campaign to a drive-up event in which gift cards were provided.
Colgrove said the feedback they received was positive, not only because of the additional privacy of the drive-up format but also because it allowed families to shop for their own Christmas gifts.
This year, she said, organizers did shop for a handful of families who had transportation or medical challenges, but gift cards were mostly provided. In addition, because donations exceeded expectations, they were also able to provide coats and shoes, while private donors provided school hoodies, a Walmart gift card and a food box.
“We were just overwhelmed by the generosity this year,” Colgrove said.
KCS students have also benefited from the generosity of outside organizations, including East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.
Shelli Eberle, principal of Fort Sanders Educational Development Center, said Children’s does an annual Christmas tree drive at the school in honor of a former patient who passed away.
The drive has grown so significantly that this year, ETCH was able to provide 125 mini-trees – one for each student.
Eberle said students have enjoyed the chance to take home an individual tree, and that the drive has been a bright spot of the holiday season.
“Seeing the joy on each child’s face as they picked out their very own tree to take home was an important reminder to look for the magic of the holiday season,” she said. “We are so grateful to have ETCH as such an incredible Partner in Education.”