Students at Camelot Education Therapeutic Day Schools Go Holiday Shopping at School
Students at Camelot Education’s Therapeutic Day School of the Quad Cities in Moline, IL and South Suburban Center for Exceptional Learners in Custer Park, IL, got to shop for the holidays this month thanks to the generosity and support of faculty and staff at the schools. Both campuses set up ‘Santa Stores’ in their buildings, featuring new or gently used items donated by Camelot Education employees. It allowed students to share in a tradition they might not otherwise have been able to. The holiday events also served as learning experiences.
“This year, as a vocational task, we asked some of our older students help set up the stores and display items by category,” said Tiffany Piehl, vocational job coach at Camelot of the Quad Cities. “Working on these tasks helps our students feel a sense of involvement and independence. We give them simple directions and let them come up with their own ideas on how they would like a display set up. Some marketing is involved, the categorization, the display of it, the presentation. All of our kids absolutely loved it.”
This is the fourth year for the Quad Cities ‘Santa Store.’ Executive Director Deb Singley said staff members donate items throughout the year.
“We collect gift items throughout the year, and then the week before we break for the holidays, Tiffany and her students display them all in a room. We allow students to come in and shop from the variety of items for parents, siblings, pets, or whoever they want to shop for. Then, the gifts are wrapped, and they take them home,” Singley said.
The event is set up for two days in the vocational room. Items are displayed on tables and walls across the room. For that week, the room is transformed into a festive holiday shop.
“The students never want for themselves very much. They want for mom, dad, baby sister, or brother,” Singley said. “I remember being in the store with a student when the student saw some baby items available. The student picked up a baby blanket and said, ‘This is going to be perfect for my new little brother or sister.’”
“It’s overwhelming watching them shop,” Piehl, added. “They really enjoy it and look forward to it every year. One student found a My Little Pony kit and said ‘my sister has always wanted this.’ She was so excited about getting it.”
The students don’t pay for the gifts but there is a limit on the number of items a student may select.
“As I watch the students shop, it is quite a process,” Singley noted. “They are shopping very carefully, thinking about choosing the perfect gift for that person they are shopping for. As adults, we sometimes want to go in and grab something and get out the door. These students are putting a great deal of thought into making sure that the gift is a good match for the person they’re shopping for. I think the biggest takeaway our students get out of the Santa Store is thinking of others first.”
Both Camelot Therapeutic Day School of the Quad Cities and South Suburban Center for Exceptional Learners serve students from kindergarten to age 21 with a variety of special needs and considerations. Some students require behavioral support, some are on the autism spectrum, and others have social-emotional needs or other health impairments.
“We want everyone to have the chance to be able to take something back to their family,” said Nicole Davenport, head of education for Camelot’s Illinois Therapeutic Day Schools and executive director of South Suburban Center for Exceptional Learners. The event gives them a sense of independence. It also helps them work on responsibility, and they really get satisfaction out of it. Most of our students can’t go to the store and purchase gifts for their loved ones on their own, so this gives them a sense of pride. It’s a feel-good moment for them that they can make choices.”
Davenport said students’ families were so excited from previous years’ Santa Store about their children having this opportunity that they donated items as well.
“We always try to give our students choices throughout the day, because so often in their lives, they don’t have that many opportunities to do that,” said Davenport. “And when you see them shopping and doing something that’s not even for themselves, but for someone else, and they’re excited about it, that’s amazing.”
In the past, school staff wrapped the gifts for them. This year, they provided a wrapping station where students wrapped their own gifts, so they participated not only in the shopping but in the preparation of the gifts for their family.
“When we see our students’ faces and their eyes and the care that they take to choose gifts I think that says it all,” said Camelot Education’s Deputy Superintendent Theresa Mortl Smith. “Our staff members are thinking about our students all year long, not just at holiday time, but these events are really meaningful and show our devotion to those we serve.”