Byron Center — The names of 2,200 Kent County school staff members appear at the top of School Supply Santa’s nice list, and the head elf herself is looking for help in giving them all gifts of self-care.
“We are seeing the weariness in school staff,” said Denise Kooiker, who started her ministry, School Supply Santa, 14 years ago. Kooiker and her team deliver loads of school supplies to more than 40 schools each fall, and she said she’s hearing about high stress levels among teachers, support staff, bus drivers, administrators and counselors everywhere she goes.
Educators are burnt out as the pandemic has dragged on, impacting a third school year, yet they continue to give their all every day.
“They care for our students. They are breathing life into our students,” she said. “We believe they need to be fueled and cared for. They sacrifice so much. You never hear them complain to the outside world. They just keep going.”
So Kooiker is adding a project to her already massive work of stocking school shelves. She is working to raise $30,000 to recognize 2,200 staff members (about $13 a person) in the more than 40 schools they serve with surprise Christmas boxes. They will be filled with items of appreciation that make them feel loved, everything from soaps to golf balls, treats and goodies. It’s School Supply Santa’s project for Giving Tuesday, which falls on Tuesday, Nov. 30.
Expanding Her Mission
Kooiker started School Supply Santa after she realized how great a need there was in area schools.
“Honestly, I was shocked,” said the Byron Center mother about a conversation she had with an elementary school teacher, who told her many students arrived at school with no pencil, markers, folders or glue sticks. Teachers were digging into their own pockets to purchase the items.
That realization led Kooiker to begin her mission to help, and now School Supply Santa serves schools in Godwin, Godfrey-Lee, Kelloggsville, Kentwood, Wyoming and Byron Center. That’s about 3,500 to 4,000 teachers each year who get supplies for their classrooms. Kooiker and her elves arrive at schools each fall for celebration parties where they deliver the donated supplies.
Now, Kooiker said she couldn’t ignore another glaring area of need when she realized how stressed and tired staff members feel. She and her team — an eight-member board, 70 to100 volunteers, and her husband, Kurt, son Landyn, 16, and daughter Ezeraya, 14 — simply want to recognize staff members and show them they are appreciated and valued.
“(School Supply Santa) is absolutely about blessing the students, but there’s so much more we can do. If our staff is not cared for they can’t care for the students,” Kooiker said. “Everyone who works within the four walls at school matters.”
A Heart for Schools
Kooiker is well-known in the halls and classrooms of Byron Center Public Schools, especially at Countryside Elementary School, where her children spent their elementary school years. The staff there still feel her impact through School Supply Santa and beyond.
“Denise is a gift in many different ways,” said Ann Milward, Countryside administrative assistant. “She blesses the staff; she blesses the families; she blesses the kids. She’s always going above and beyond. She is always thinking about others and giving as much as she can.”
Principal Jolynne Knowlton said Kooiker’s impact on Countryside has been far-reaching. She helped develop and implement a character-building program at the school several years ago. It developed into a program that is still used by the district today.
“One of Denise’s biggest strengths is that she gets initiatives started and they snowball,” Knowlton said.
Now, while many are struggling and staff are worn out, Denise, of course, is showing up again.
“She has a heart to embrace not just kids, but schools and everything that’s part of the school,” Knowton said.