Mary Jane Nelson has been a retired school teacher for close to a decade now, but that hasn’t stopped her from staying connected to the students at Prairie View Elementary School in Lee’s Summit.
Not only does Nelson still substitute regularly at the school, she has also been involved for the last 10 years with an annual art project that incorporates the artistic abilities of some of the students there and benefits others caught in dire situations.
Students in grades 3-6 spend a few art class periods decorating sacks – 70 in all – donated by HyVee to be used as gift bags for the less fortunate during the holiday season.
A member of Lee’s Summit United Methodist Church, Nelson and about a dozen other volunteers then take the decorated sacks, stuff them with necessary items and deliveries them to an outreach program based out of a church in the Westport area of Kansas City.
The program, Neighbor2Neighbor, serves homeless, near-homeless, and indigent persons in the Westport area.
“It’s a homeless shelter that runs about 70 people – about 60 men and 10 women,” Nelson said during a short break in-between class Dec. 5 at Prairie View. “My (volunteer) group takes a meal to them the first Tuesday of every month. We decorate the Christmas part, so my group decided seven or eight years ago that we would buy Christmas gifts for them.
“The kids decorate the sacks that HyVee donates and then we put shampoo, deodorant, toiletries, a scarf, gloves, a hat and candy in them, but not a lot of candy. We fill the sacks and my oldest son dresses like Santa Claus and we take them up usually the Thursday or Friday before Christmas and deliver them.”
For Nelson, Prairie View art teacher Stacie O’Neal and O’Neal’s pupils, the volunteer act is all in the name of the holiday spirit.
“I decided one year that kids like to decorate so – in the beginning just my class did it when I was teaching,” Nelson said. “When it was over, I thought, ‘well I bet other kids would be interested.’ So I talked to Mrs. O’Neal and asked ‘how would you like to be in charge of getting them decorated?’”
“It’s a really fun project,” said Hunter Elliott, a fifth-grade student at Prairie View who was all in on the decorated sack mission. “This is the second time I’ve done it and it’s a really good feeling.”
Elliott’s classmate, Jovana Tica, said the art project was meaningful in that the sacks would benefit those less fortunate than others.
“I feel kind of good because I would feel kind of bad if I didn’t get presents for Christmas,” she said.
For her part, O’Neal said each year students are more and more excited to participate in the project.
“We are showing our compassion and our kindness,” she said. “Especially during the holiday time. Part of just getting along with our community is sharing. During the holiday time, it just brings to them how fortunate we are that we have warm places to live and we have the needs and necessities, and that we can be a part of the giving process.
“When they found out that these bags are going to be filled with gifts and scarves and hats and food items, they got real excited like, ‘awww, I want to make one for someone.’ That got real energized and you could tell that they didn’t even want to quit. They wanted to continue. It kind of gets me choked up when I think about that. It makes it real to them.”
Nelson loves the fact that the efforts of children as young as 9 can brighten the day for a group of mostly men in the Neighbor2Neighbor program at Revolution United Methodist Church in Westport.
“The men up there are really thrilled when they find out that the children decorated them because they are not around children very much,” Nelson said. “I thought this is a good thing for kids to understand that they are men basically who adore children but never have a chance to be around them anymore – not even their own grandchildren.
“That kind of built the excitement that they were giving them to some men who didn’t have anything otherwise. That’s why we let the kids do it. I could do it, but why should I when the kids love it?”