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Santa's Helpers

---Alternative high students rally for kids in alternative living conditions

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published Dec. 20, 2007, 1:00 p.m.)

Terry Mayer/The Week
?Melissa Garrick, a student at the Walworth County Alternative High School, wraps a present that will be donated to a child at the Twin Oaks homeless shelter in Darien Township.

She remembers the Christmas her family spent living at the Twin Oaks Homeless Shelter. And she especially remembers that even though they had no home for Christmas, Santa Claus found them anyway.

This year she collected clothes and toys to make sure Santa Claus finds the kids spending Christmas this year where she did so many years ago.

Although she didn't want to be identified, she knows firsthand how much the Walworth County Educational Alternative High School's annual toy drive means to those it serves.

For the 17th consecutive year, alternative high school students spent weeks making sure the kids at the shelter don't go without a gift.

The lists are tellingly simple:

Boy, 17, clothes; boy, 16, hat, boots; boy, 2, warm clothes; and the lists go on for each of the 12 children currently living at Twin Oaks in Darien.

A dozen kids without homes in our county seems like a lot, but it's about average, said John Hembrook, manager of Twin Oaks Shelter.

"We've had numbers in the 20s at times," he said.

"I feel bad for the 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds who have a social life and to have to tell people they live there," said Melissa Garrick, student, while she wrapped presents in an Alternative High School classroom, located on the Gateway Technical College campus in Elkhorn.

"I'm happy to do anything to help them."

Tiffany noticed the lack of fun things on the lists.

"They probably don't want to ask for too much," she said.

Tables across the entire classroom are filled with everything from the lists--warm clothes, snow pants and boots. But they're also filled with trucks, Barbies, Play-Doh, puzzles, books and even a digital camera.

The room is full of positive energy, chatter and smiles as students wrap and deliver the fruits of their labor during their winter break from classes.

"It was fun shopping for these cute little clothes, like this cute outfit I found," said Tiffany, holding up a cozy winter coat and snowpant set.

"Should we give this to the little boy because he has less than the little girl?" a student asks Debbie Bartholomay, teacher at the school since it opened in 1990.

"It's your decision," Bartholomay replies. "It's your family."

The Alternative High School was designed to teach students unable to succeed in traditional public schools. Its success has upheld its need for 17 years. There are currently 90 students.

"These are kids that people don't trust," Bartholomay said.

"But they do this entirely themselves. They bake the items for the bake sales, they run the bake sales, they go store to store asking for donations, do all the shopping, wrapping and delivering themselves.

"And every penny is accounted for. In fact, they give from their own pockets."

That's important when you're talking about teens on the edge of falling off-track. And what's just as important is that they can do something positive and feel good about themselves, Bartholomay says.

"They feel nobody cares about them; they're disenfranchised," she said. "They feel that they can't affect someone else's life, good or bad.

"It's important for them to understand that what they do is important to their community and that they're part of it."

Jessica Beaudine raised over $600 in donations of money and gifts from the stores around Lake Geneva.

"It wasn't that hard, actually," she said. "I just did it."

Hembrook has played middle man between the students and the residents for all of his. And he's gotten to know the kids and how they feel.

Hembrook has talked to lots of kids as they dropped off their gifts over 14 years as manager of the shelter.

"It's a different and a better feeling when you're giving to someone who has a real need in this type of situation," he said. "They agree that it's more rewarding."

So come Christmas morning, there may be 12 kids and their parents living in a homeless shelter, but there won't be a single one forgotten by Santa Claus.

"We'd like to send out a big thank you and Merry Christmas to everybody at the Alternative High School and everybody in the community," Hembrook says on their behalf. "And a Happy New Year."

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