The annual Holiday Angel Tree has been set up outside the Community Engagement Center office as part of a holiday tradition which has lasted over a decade. “The Angel Tree Program is a partnership with the Head Start Program in St. Peter… [that] promotes the school readiness of young children from income eligible families in Nicollet county… It has become a great tradition here at Gustavus,” Director of the Community Engagement Center Amy Pehrson said.
“Head Start leads the early childhood field with a strong, clear, and comprehensive focus on healthy child development,and encourages the role of parents as their child’s first and most important teachers… build[s] relationships with families that support positive parent- child relationships, family well- being, and connections to peers and community,” Pehrson said.
“The goal of the Holiday Angel Tree program is to allow students, faculty, and staff to connect to the community while spreading holiday cheer. I am often told by people who participate in the program how much it means to them, knowing that they are able to bring joy to a child who may not receive gifts this holiday season,” Junior Holly Fitterer said.
Gustavus students, staff and faculty “take tags from the tree… the turnout is always fabulous. The tags are usually taken within the first couple days of being put on the tree,” Pehrson said.
This year, there were over 100 tags for roughly 45 families.
“Siblings of children in the Head Start Program are included in the gift- giving as well, because all members of a family are so important to a child’s development” Pehrson said.
This year marks Fitterer’s third year as the coordinator for the Holiday Angel Tree Program. “I am in contact with the Head Start Program Coordinator, I obtain the wish lists for the children, I set up the tree and the tags, and coordinate their return and delivery to the families,” Fitterer said. The process takes two months to complete and the program set up itself takes place in about a week.
“I really enjoy seeing the Gustavus community excited to be a part of the program… I enjoy watching all the gifts come in. It is a little bit stressful… but in the end I get to see all the gifts come together… as we prepare to load them up to be delivered to the Head Start families. No matter how stressful or busy the program gets, this moment makes it all worth it,” Fitterer said.
“I’ve been participating in the Holiday Angel Tree program for as long as I can remember. I’ve even asked my friends to take part in it, and we’ve all loved doing it. Shopping for the specific items is always fun… hoping that it’s just what they wanted. I also love to pray for them as well. It’s super fun to involve my grandkids in picking out the gifts. It helps them be more appreciative of what they have and their own Christmas experiences,” Library Acquisitions and Cataloging Manager Diane Christensen said.
The gifts are collected from students, staff and faculty on Dec. 11th, and returned to the Head Start Program Director on Dec. 12 to be distributed. If not all gifts are returned to the CEC by Dec. 11.
“We have asked some folks for cash donations so that our coordinator can make a quick trip to Mankato and purchase the remaining gifts,” Pehrson said.
“Each year for the Angel Tree Program, I invite each family to participate, and allow a family not to participate if they so choose. I make the information available to parents, assuring them that no names are shared for confidentiality purposes. I assign a number for each family and their children, parents complete the form and return to me. Sometimes it is necessary that I help interpret the idea behind the Angel Tree, help with the sizes for non- English speaking parents, or answer any other questions parents may have,” Family Advocate for St. Peter Head Start classrooms Jody Leighton said.
“I have worked for St. Peter Head Start for 19 years, and each one of those years the Angel Tree program has reached out to generously give gifts to our students and their siblings,” Leighton said.
“After the gifts are collected on campus by Leighton and her staff, who bring them to a conference room at the Community Center, organize the gifts for distribution, and have the privilege of giving the gifts to the parents personally. The parents are always surprised at the generosity of the Angel Tree “givers” and are so happy that their children will have gifts to open that they may not have had without the Angel Tree Program,” Leighton said.
“The Angel Tree gifts serve a diverse population… sometimes the needs/ wants are so very basic: diapers, wipes, winter clothing, and more. Sometimes the families have no support from extended family members due to broken relationships, financial hardships, or extended family members living in poverty themselves in another country. To know that a stranger cares enough to give a special gift to their child is heart- warming to the moms and dads who eagerly pick up the gifts,” Leighton added.
“I really hope the campus continues with this event because it gives the students and staff the chance to not only give back to their community, but also to brighten a child’s life with thoughtful, useful gifts,” Christensen said.
“I am always amazed at the time GAC students are willing to spend to shop for and creatively wrap a gift for an unknown child. Thank you for continuing the tradition for all these years,” Leighton said.