Garbage bags were piled high Wednesday inside the women’s restroom at the May Butler Center, home of administrative offices for the Helena School District.
As she hauled seven of the bags to her car, Ty House joked that if she slung one over her shoulder, it might better reflect the contents inside.
Inside each were dozens of children’s toys and clothing, each neatly wrapped and labeled for the student who would receive it. House, secretary at Ray Bjork Learning Center, was taking the gifts back to her school so they could be distributed later this week.
The gifts will make Christmas a bit brighter for 72 of Helena’s underprivileged students this year, thanks to the efforts of school district staff.
The program, called the Sunshine Fund, turns the conference room into a holiday workshop for a few days each year as staff members sort and wrap the presents. The elfish work comes naturally for staff who are used to working behind-the-scenes in the schools.
The Sunshine Fund is a 20-year-old tradition, though it has never been as formal as the name makes it sound.
It began after Jim Opitz, the district’s activities administrator, saw an injured boy while visiting a relative in the hospital around Christmastime.
The boy was suffering from burn injuries, the nurse told him. His family, short on cash, was heating their house with a cook stove. The young boy had spilled boiling water on himself, Opitz said.
When Opitz’s coworkers and administrative assistant got word of the boy, they decided to help out.
“I just told them the story, and they said, ‘Let’s do something.’”
That year, they brought gifts to the hospital for the boy and his siblings. The idea grew in following years into a fundraiser for needy families with children in Helena’s elementary schools.
“It was a nice way for those of us at the central office to celebrate Christmas,” Opitz said. “We didn’t even have a name for it (the project). We just did it.”
Each year, school staff collects donations from local businesses and holds a raffle among them. Principals at each school supply names of students to the central office, including their clothing sizes and gift requests.
This year, the gifts went to students from Bryant, Broadwater, Central, Ray Bjork and Warren, Executive Assistant Diane Neff said.
With wishlists in hand, 21 school officials went on an early-morning shopping spree at K-Mart last Saturday. The store, where they purchase the toys and clothes each year, opened at 7 a.m. for the group.
Around two hours and a few thousand dollars later, the wish lists were filled. It took staff 45 minutes to check out, with two registers going, Neff said.
Families will also receive gift certificates and a plate of homemade cookies along with their presents. Principals will give the packages to the children’s parents on Friday.
While staff members don’t deliver the gifts themselves, Neff said it’s still a gratifying experience. The gifts help the district’s neediest families enjoy Christmas and are always well-received, she said.
“They’re just overwhelmed,” Neff said.
“There’s nothing better than helping those little guys that don’t have much,” Opitz said.