By JEROD CLAPP
The elves made sure the setup was perfect while the kids were rounded up in their classrooms. Katrina Pierce made a couple of last-minute calls, including to Mrs. Claus, to make sure everything was ready.
When the first group of them came in, their faces lit up as they saw all the toys Santa and his wife brought for all of them at Maple Elementary.
The school’s 12th annual Bears on Parade brought about 600 stuffed animals for all of the students on Friday. Pierce, the physical education teacher who heads up the giveaway every year, said the donations of new and gently used toys haven’t stopped coming in from community members and companies.
“The donations continue to just come in,” Pierce said. “I don’t have to push for them as much as I used to. Some people who know about it from before come by and say they’ve got a truckload for me.”
In 12 years of giving toys to students, Pierce said children at Maple have received more than 14,000 stuffed animals.
As students lined up in the gym, they took a small stuffed animal of their choosing, got a candy cane from Mrs. Claus, then chose a number from Santa to find out which animal they’d take home.
Maple Elementary’s student population has one of the highest free and reduced lunch rates in the district at more than 80 percent. Lauretta Starks, principal, said if it weren’t for Bears on Parade, some of them might not get anything at all for Christmas.
“I’ll never forget one year a child told me it might be the only toy they’d get for Christmas that year,” Starks said. “I had no idea. It really just gives me joy to see them smiling and hugging their stuffed animals.”
Pierce said for the last two years, Steel Dynamics in Jeffersonville has helped with setup and collection of stuffed animals. The company also brought in two teams of workers to help with setup and distribution of toys.
Wes Drury, a production supervisor with the company, said they raised about $1,200 as a company to help buy animals for the students.
“Doing this from last year, it’s just about seeing the kids come in and know they’ll have something for Christmas,” Drury said. “It makes me feel good and I know the guys here want to contribute. We know how much we like getting presents, so we know how important it is to these kids.”
But he said the employees he works with regularly are happy to come in and do what they can for the school and its children.
“You don’t have to force these guys to do anything,” Drury said. “They want to come in and give back.”
Pierce said as a final sendoff before winter break for students, Bears on Parade has become something they all look forward to, whether they’ve experienced it already or not.
“We just want to make sure every child feels special at Christmas,” Pierce said. “They’re pushed so hard to do well with tests and everything else that we want to make sure everybody gets something for the holidays, regardless of the economic situation at home.”