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Student Santas brings joy to families statewide

Student Santas, a nonprofit organization based in Cape Girardeau has helped more than 22,000 children and their families from across the state over the past 12 years.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to get into the joy of Christmas,” Founder Jennifer Icaza-Gast said. “It’s what Christmas is all about — giving and being able to help somebody that can’t really do much for themselves.”

The organization receives letters from needy families and connects them to businesses, organizations and individuals who buy gifts for the children and personally deliver them.

Icaza-Gast said many of the gifts have already been delivered, but some families choose to receive them on Christmas Eve itself.

“The need is there, it just is,” Icaza-Gast said. “Folks don’t realize that it’s right here in Cape. There’s not been one home I’ve been to where they weren’t in need. They are truly in need and so thankful to get help for their kids.”

Student Santas started when Icaza-Gast was teaching at Southeast Missouri State University. She asked her students to donate toys for needy children in exchange for extra credit points.

“Students started bringing in 20, 30, 40, 50 toys apiece,” Icaza-Gast said.

One of the students who participated, Megan Hurst, is still involved with the organization. The program has grown every year, and it now receives letters from across the state.

“Last year, we adopted out 100 families, and this year we doubled that,” Icaza-Gast said. “We actually adopted out over 200 families.”

In addition, Student Santas gives a gift to every student at Jefferson and Franklin elementary schools in Cape Girardeau. It is also the third year where it will feed families on Christmas Day.

“That started because I got a letter from a five-year-old boy, and he asked for a nice meal for Christmas,” Icaza-Gast said. “That just devastated me.”

Just like the rest of their organization, the Christmas Day meal has grown since it was introduced. The first year around 100 people were fed. Last year, 350 people were fed and already more than 600 free tickets to the Christmas lunch have been given out this year.

Isle Casino is donating the food that will be served from noon to 2 p.m. at Jefferson Elementary School. The children who arrive will receive a present, as well as a few books that were donated through a Barnes and Noble book drive. The event will also include music, activities and pictures with Santa.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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