Byron Center — It felt like Christmas in August for North Godwin resource room teacher Julie Friel, as volunteers in bright yellow T-shirts loaded boxes of school supplies into her van.
“We spend so much of our own money for supplies,” she explained, “so we’re so thankful for donations and the morale boost for staff at the start of the year.
“It’s so nice to be appreciated as an educator.”
Friel represented just one school out of the 45 in Kent County supported by the non-profit School Supply Santa.
During a conversation with a local elementary school teacher in 2007, Denise Kooiker, founder and original “Santa” discovered many children didn’t have the supplies they needed at the start of each year.
What started as donations for a few classrooms from neighbors and friends collected in her living room grew into a West Michigan institution over its 15 years.
The group collected backpacks, notebooks, pens, pencils and more throughout the year and multiplied donations through bulk purchases with monetary donations.
Items were sorted, organized and packed by district and schools, and handed to teachers and administrators at a designated time.
“We take all the supplies we gather through donations and divide them based on student population at each school and need based on free/reduced lunch count,” said Mike Gilpin, School Supply Santa board president. “We try to make it as smooth as possible for teachers to get their supplies and remind them, ‘We see you and believe in teachers and administrators.’”
Empowering Teachers & Students
“You never see us, that’s the Santa part,” Kooiker said. “We never interact with the students; we help, but we empower teachers with the supplies to support their students and build impactful relationships and connections with their students.”
She reached out to school counselors and mental health professionals to find out their needs based on student age groups.
“We added a mental health component to our efforts last year to support school counselors with tools and resources so they can support students,” Gilpin said. “Our teachers are ready to hit the ground running, and we are ready to help them hit it well.”
All Good Things
At the recent giveaway, board member Jen Findlay was in charge of the tent with bags filled with coloring books, fidget toys and other tools for school counselors.
Kooiker explained why this year would be School Supply Santa’s last hurrah.
“It takes a village to pull this off with a million behind the scenes things, but the Lord said it was time,” she said. “We’ve done good work, been good servants, and we hope this beautiful thing continues in other ways.”
Kooiker said she and her team hope the community will “rise up in our absence” to continue meeting the need.