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Student Santas taking letters through Dec. 1

Student Santas, a nonprofit organization based in Cape Girardeau, is gearing up for the holiday season and is currently receiving letters to Santa through Dec. 1 from families who need help getting children clothes and toys for Christmas.

Founder Jennifer Icaza-Gast said Student Santas receives letters from all over the state, and they have even delivered gifts to families in Illinois and Kentucky. Last year, around 250 families were helped.

“We get letters from moms, dads, social workers and parent liaisons from different schools,” Icaza-Gast said. She added that some children ask for basic necessities like underwear or toothbrushes.

Letters can be sent to Student Santas at P.O. Box 641, Cape Girardeau, MO 63702. Along with some things on the children’s wish lists, letters should include a phone number that will be contacted to confirm the letter was received, the address of the family, and children’s names, gender and age.

“This is really geared to kids ages 12 and below because those are the kids that still believe in Santa Claus,” Icaza-Gast said. “Santa isn’t the reason for the season, but to kids, Santa is a big deal. We want to show people that you can still hope and count on people.”

The organization has helped more than 25,000 people over the past 14 years, and it now includes an event at Jefferson Elementary School on Christmas Day from noon to 2 p.m., where children can meet Santa, get a present and have a Christmas meal donated by Isle Casino and The Southerner by Tractors.

Icaza-Gast said she started the organization after seeing her small children going through their presents under the tree one Christmas morning.

“I just start crying because I was thinking at that very moment there’s probably a little girl or a little boy running into their own living room and finding nothing under the tree,” Icaza-Gast said.

Icaza-Gast was teaching at Southeast Missouri State University at the time, and the next year she offered extra credit to her students if they donated toys. She said it has grown every year from there, with some of her former students still involved with the organization and other families volunteering every year.

“People have started to make it their tradition,” Icaza-Gast said. “I can’t tell you how many people have already sent me messages to make sure they were on my volunteer list.”

Those who volunteer to adopt a family receive the letter and buy the presents for the whole family. They then make arrangements with the family and deliver it themselves. “It’s very personal and that’s what is really neat about this organization,” Icaza-Gast said.

She said they hope to have all the gifts delivered by Dec. 15 this year, making the Dec. 1 deadline for letters necessary. “It’s important for our volunteers to have Christmas with their own families and that also gives them time to buy for their own kids and their own families,” Icaza-Gast said.

To volunteer, people should e-mail Icaza-Gast at jenndgast@hotmail.com. The organization also takes donations at the same address that letters are sent.

Icaza-Gast said a young man in college sent three dollars in the mail to the organization with a letter saying his family was helped by Student Santas, after his father lost his job.

“He had two younger siblings and he said in his letter that he remembers feeling horrible and crying at night because he knew his siblings were really looking forward to seeing Santa Clause,” Icaza-Gast said. “They had made their lists and he knew they weren’t going to get anything.”

Student Santas delivered presents for him and his siblings, and his letter said that he wanted to give back what he could to the organization. Icaza-Gast said it felt like Student Santas had “come full circle.”

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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