By Lori Leath Smith
A Hometown Hero comes in many forms, even young students! Each year this season, leadership students from Fort Walton Beach High School (FWBHS) become “heroes” for many parents in our community who have no way to provide a joyful Christmas for their children.
The Leadership Program is a student-led cooperation which heads several annual projects ranging from community publicity, to natural disaster relief, mentoring children, community outreach, feeding the homeless and even appealing to the state legislature for new resolutions. Their acts have been recognized by district, state and national organizations as well as government institutions. The primary goal of the Leadership Program is to challenge 9-12 grade students in both their academic and personal lives along with teaching them the importance of giving back to the community. Roughly 300 students generate as much as $30,000 each year overall to plug back into the community.
While FWBHS Leadership student’s projects are vast, they are best known for their Christmas Connection project. The project’s goal is to provide a Christmas or holiday celebration to less fortunate families in Okaloosa County. Families are selected on recommendations and applications from local elementary, middle and high school guidance counselors.
Last year, through sponsorships and monetary donations attained from local businesses and individuals, this county-wide public service provided more than 47 families and 165 children with a comprehensive Christmas. To break it down, that’s meals for up to 14 days including breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as decorations, wrapped gifts valued at $100 for each child, and when needed, support for the families with lodging, utility bills and additional expenses.
Each leadership student is involved in the planning, fundraising, purchasing and delivering meals and gifts for each family.
Most of the leadership students say the fun really happens this month where they begin to meet and get to know the families in which they’ve been assigned. “Through the “meet-and-greets” with the families,” says Bella Larabee, one of the Christmas Connection program leaders, “we gain information on the children’s toys and clothes preferences, and the needs of their parents.” They then plan how to ensure the family is lifted of many of their worries by Dec. 25th. Groups of five to six students help one to four families at a time. Overall, the most needed item is food. “Over the past two months, we’ve been collecting bags upon bags of non-perishable food items and will purchase, with the donation dollars, milk, eggs, butter and hams and turkeys for the families’ Christmas dinner and the weeks ahead,” says Bella.“Then comes the shop ‘till we drop day, where we buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of gifts and toys for our assigned family’s children.” Toys are brought to FWBHS and wrapped, assembled and made ready to be delivered usually on the 20th.
You can join these amazing hometown heroes by making a monetary donation; $100 provides a holiday package for one child. You can send a check to Fort Walton Beach High School with “Christmas Connection” written in the memo section. Students are taking donations through the new year and can provide a tax receipt by request.
“Tears of joy pour from both the eyes of the giver and of the receiver throughout this experience,” says former leadership student and FWBHS alumna, Savannah Smith. “These Leadership students truly make an impact on the lives of these children and parents.” But could it be that the very lives they’re impacting have a long-lasting reverse effect? “I believe,” says Savannah, “my life has never been the same.”