Make Merry Project: Students rally to provide holiday cheer for homeless and housing-insecure APS students - Albuquerque Journal

Make Merry Project: Students rally to provide holiday cheer for homeless and housing-insecure APS students

Marti Fernandez unloads a box full of gifts for homeless and housing insecure students during a toy drive outside of La Cueva High School on Tuesday. In one fell swoop, she and her friend Cindy Sikelianos all but filled up the donation boxes set up for the drive. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Molly Schafer, a North Star Elementary School fifth grader, was her mom’s gift expert this year.

Charged with picking out things she thought kids would like for a toy drive for homeless and housing-insecure Albuquerque Public Schools students, she sought only the good stuff.

And she chose some hot commodities, including Disney princess stuffed animals, dolls and other toys. Dressed in a pink, purple and blue unicorn hoodie and clear-frame glasses, Schafer eagerly hopped out of her mom’s car and set about filling up several large, gift-wrapped donation boxes with her selects.

“It makes me feel good that kids can get stuff,” the 11-year-old said.

The toy drive on Tuesday — part of the local Make Merry Project — was largely pulled together by the La Cueva High School dance team, which is coached by Schafer’s mother. The students brought their credibility as high-schoolers in organizing it and as dancers in hosting it.

Molly Schafer, left, and her mother, Yvonne, unload their cargo area, which moments before was chock-full of toys and wrapping paper, at La Cueva High School on Tuesday. Yvonne, who coaches the dance team that put together the event, called her team “selfless” and said they were “all about helping out other people.” (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Out in the cold, they shook navy blue and silver pompoms and improvised dance routines to holiday songs, welcoming toy donors as they slowly made their way through the drop-off lane.

There was no sluggishness for Cindy Sikelianos and Marti Fernandez.

“You guys are going to need way bigger boxes,” Fernandez, sporting a red sweater that said “Merry” on the front, told the team as she got out of her vehicle to reveal a cargo area packed with gifts.

They had all sorts of good stuff in tow — stuffed animals, pajamas, coats, candy — things they got over a weekslong shopping spree and cash donation collection Sikelianos initiated when she heard about the project.

“We got a little bit of everything,” Fernandez said. “We got excited when we heard it was for the local kids, and the way that they’re going to do (it) — you know, to let the parents and the guardians do the shopping.”

The project, founded in 2020, was started to help families facing housing insecurity get through the holidays, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s driven by community gift donations and sponsorships from local businesses, which also host donation centers.

Sometimes, families experiencing housing insecurity, project founder Tiffany Gravelle said, aren’t always able to provide traditional holiday experiences for their children. The toys the project gives parents and guardians to then give to their kiddos — even if they’re not a fix for their problems — help provide a bit of hope.

“At the end of the day, the kids get to benefit by having this really great Christmas, but it comes from their parents,” she said. “Whether it’s from Nana or Santa or Mom and Dad … it’s from them and the kids know it’s a gift from them.”

High schoolers, especially those at La Cueva, have really stepped up to the plate for the mission behind the project, Gravelle said, noting that many of her volunteers are high school students.

Zayka Nasser, a dance team captain, is one of those students.

The junior has been around for as long as La Cueva’s hosted the toy drive, and helped make it happen this year. For her, donating time and effort is a way of being grateful for what she has.

“It’s kind of unfortunate, because like all of us … are lucky enough — and grateful — that we have the ability to have shelter and food and water, and that our parents are able to provide holiday spirit for us,” she said. “But to know that there’s families and children … who don’t get this experience, and they’re having to mature so early in life — it’s just so heartbreaking.

“To be able to just change that, even if it’s for a short period of time, and just make children happy … it makes me feel grateful for what I have,” she added.

Brooklynne Mullins and Kaitlyn Herbert, members of the La Cueva High School dance team, check out some of the toys they collected during a drive for homeless and housing insecure students outside their school on Tuesday. (Chancey Bush/Albuqerque Journal)

She plans to give up much of her Sunday to help staff a private shopping event — with a sprinkle of holiday cheer — from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Salt Yard, 6001 Osuna NE, where the four large boxes-worth of toys the team helped collect will be donated.

Parents and guardians will have personal shoppers who will help them find the perfect gift, and they’ll be treated to hot chocolate, cookies and “pampering services,” to include hair and makeup treatments and hand or scalp massages. Bilingual volunteers will also be around to help.

In years past, the project’s reached somewhere between 400 and 500 parents and guardians and a little more than 1,000 students. This year, Gravelle said she and her team hope to reach 1,500 students.

“My ultimate goal is to bring this across the state and make sure that all the McKinney-Vento programs (which serve students facing housing insecurity) have access,” she said.

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