PEYTON, Colo. – “We have a sleigh on the way,” said Jim Borst, bus driver trainer for Falcon School District 49, updating people preparing a hot breakfast Dec. 8 in a colorfully decorated facility at the district’s Education Service Center.
While kindergartener Angel Lobato Rivera, 5, stepped down from his “sleigh,” a bus garnished with green garland, red ribbons and snowmen cutouts, Terry Maloney reached out with her red cotton gloves, robe and white-laced nightcap.
Maloney, a special needs bus driver dressed to resemble Mrs. Santa Claus, paired Angel with three Falcon High School students. They rushed him out of the cool air for scrambled eggs, pancakes and sausage. As each bus pulled up, a line of volunteers extended to its door.
About 150 people volunteered for Santa’s Toy Express, which helps District 49 families facing special circumstances during Christmas. Fifty students were recommended for the event from the district’s nine elementary schools in northeast Colorado Springs and Peyton.
Forty-seven children arrived for the Saturday event, as community members welcomed them to the morning of holiday activities and shopping. Santa Claus, performed by retired firefighter Jim DeGeorge, arrived on a fire truck with candy canes and merriment.
“Last year, a student’s parent died,” said RJ Berry, special needs bus driver, who started Santa’s Toy Express in 2002. “We got the word from the school … he was traumatized, a child missing a parent during Christmas, so we brought him in and put a smile on his face.
“I think it’s important for us to go out and help our own,” said Berry, a retired retail manager. During the first year, the event touched the lives of 15 students. In 2004, he expanded the program to 49 in tribute to the district’s number.
“I think it’s important for us to go out and help our own.”
“I realized we’ve got the buses, so we can go straight to their houses – there’s no reason we can’t help more,” said Berry. He says the program will stay focused on forming an exceptional experience for roughly 50 students.
To keep the event exciting, the transportation department must collect about $6,000 in donations, said Berry. Department leaders coordinate themed potlucks to raise funds and shop year round for seasonal discounts.
Santa’s Toy Express received financial support this year from Walmart, Falcon Lions Club, Farmer’s State Bank and The State Bank.“I feel good right now, doing this – we know we’re making a difference in our community,” said ninth grader Aitana Elder, after eating breakfast with Angel. She ushered him through the event with classmates Callie Segotta and Denyce Hagans.
The three students are Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets at Falcon High School. Their unit donated $250 to Santa’s Toy Express early in the day, while pledging a $600 contribution next year.
“This is one of those things that can change a life,” said Elder, 14, as the others nodded in agreement. The veteran volunteers had donated time to a food bank, library, nursing home and fire department, but never Santa’s Toy Express, until now.
“Their slogan is ‘service before self,’” said Berry, referring to the Junior ROTC cadets. “They’re serving these children today, giving up their time on a Saturday morning – and they’ll fight to do it again next year.”
Aside from a couple of sponsors assisting a family member, most didn’t know their child’s special circumstance, only their need for a boost in holiday joy.
Angel’s Holiday Help
After breakfast, the children boarded the buses with their sponsors and traveled a mile east to Walmart. Many kids sang Christmas carols along the way. As everyone exited near the store’s front door, Berry wished them well and distributed $40 gift cards.Angel rode in a cart through the aisles, where he carefully selected presents for his family. He looked over cosmetics, jewelry, candy and toys, while budgeting for his dog Zeus, too.
“The first thing he did was get his mom and brother stuff, and then he asked about himself,” said Hagans, 14, about Angel’s shopping spree. “He’s so sweet. Kids normally don’t do that.”
After returning to the Education Service Center, Angel wrapped his presents, created ornaments and visited Santa Claus. He watched Loren Lanckriet present a magic show, talents exercised countless times for U.S. troops in Iraq.
Angel boarded a homebound bus by noon, clenching a bag of his gifts and crafts. He’ll discover several surprises, like a new jacket and a homemade matching hat and scarf. His mother will find a $20 grocery gift card for a holiday meal.
“I think we helped Angel feel less shy,” said Elder. “We showed him that older kids aren’t all that bad. We’re pretty nice. When I was younger, I was afraid of the older kids, but this showed them we’re not intimidating.”
“All these kids are really sweet,” said Segotta, 14, exchanging waves with Angel as his bus departed. “Teenagers that get into trouble a lot, this would help them. They could help kids out and see a different point of view, give them a change in heart.
“You’re helping kids with less than you, or with families having difficulties,” she said.