The Gift of a Christmas

The most wonderful time of the year. For most people that means twinkly lights, Santa Claus, presents under the tree, carols, and peppermint sticks. For the children at Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary School in Philadelphia, the most wonderful time of the year means CB South is coming to town.

The Sheppard School was built in 1897 and teaches grades K-4. However, this is no ordinary school; Sheppard does not have a gymnasium, classroom air conditioners, or an auditorium, and almost 94 percent of the student population is economically disadvantaged.

In 2011, the School District of Philadelphia released a list of schools that might be shut down, and Sheppard was on that list. Sophie Rivera, a Sheppard School parent, expressed in an article from The Notebook entitled “Still full of life, 114-year-old Sheppard School faces its demise,” that the closing of the elementary school would worsen conditions in the neighborhood because, as she said, “Sheppard is one of the few remaining institutions left that holds together an otherwise struggling community.”

Sheppard stands in the heart of one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods. In a neighborhood where the drug trade dominates the streets, Sheppard acts as a “bodyguard of the community,” said Rivera in the article.

The school teachers and administrators have made sure that these conditions do not affect the educations of the students at their school. While the environment of the neighborhood around Sheppard is not ideal, the faculty at Sheppard makes sure that the students strive to be the best students they can be.

According to the Philadelphia School District’s Annual Report for the Sheppard School, the students tested well in most areas, with just a few testing areas needing improvement.

Three years later, the Sheppard School is still standing strong. It was in fact one of only two schools that was saved from being shut down.

Sheppard was saved in part because of the support it received from all the families and outside groups that felt the same way about Sheppard as those who work and learn at the school.

Central Bucks High School South is one of the major groups that is so supportive of the Sheppard School. CB South’s “Sheppard Project” all began with the merging of students from CB West and East when the new CB South was built a decade ago.

Before the time of CB South, CB West had done something similar to the Sheppard Project with George Washington Elementary School in Philadelphia.

One of the first CB South students who had previously gone to West proposed that South help a school in Philadelphia just like West had done. The student then got in touch with the Sheppard School through the Principal at Washington Elementary, and from there the Sheppard Project was born.

Since then, the Sheppard Project has been a tradition at CB South. Each year the 15 class officers from across the three grades, 30 seniors, and a handful of faculty members travel to Philadelphia to deliver a Christmas of their own to the children at Sheppard.

All Sheppard students receive two presents each and get to build their own gingerbread houses. In addition, the kids sing carols with the South students and spend time with “Santa.” For many of the kids, the Christmas that South brings to them is the only Christmas they will have that year.

While these activities are fun for the kids, they require serious work behind the scenes.

Senior Class advisor Ms. Mattern said that the Sheppard Project requires at least $2,500-3,000 to be able to fund the bare minimum, and a trip with extras would require around $3,000-4,000. Along with these sums of money, they need about 500 gifts to make sure that each child gets two gifts.

For the Sheppard Project to be a success, it requires not only resources, but also effort and time. Co-Chairs for Sheppard 2014-2015 Emma Burke and Julia Corr, seniors at CB South, are the cogs of the machine making the whole project move along smoothly.

Last fall, Emma and Julia were asked to shadow the previous Co-Chairs, Sara Downey and Sarah Weigand, and were soon running the project themselves.

That year was Emma’s first time at the Sheppard School, and she said her experience was “life-changing.”

“It is so easy to get absorbed in the Bucks County ‘bubble,'” Emma said, and experiences like Sheppard bring perspective to communities like CB South who are generally privileged.

Ms. Mattern said that it is very easy to lose track of what is important and take what one has for granted, and Sheppard allows the CB South students to reflect on their lives.

“I’ll never forget the first year I went. This kid—we would give them each two wrapped gifts—he unwrapped one of them and kept the other one wrapped,” Mrs. Mattern said. She then asked him, “don’t you want to unwrap your other present?” The boy replied “no,” saying that he wanted to take the wrapped present home, “to make sure his brother had something to unwrap that year too.”

The Sheppard Project also helps South students to learn more about what is around them. Emma detailed a memory she has from last year’s Field Day for the Sheppard School.

The Field Day is held at South each spring following the Winter Sheppard visit. CB South brings the fourth graders of Sheppard Elementary to the high school, provides lunch for the students, and runs games and activities for the children.

At last year’s Field Day, Emma had a special experience with one of the Sheppard students.

“I was giving this sweet girl a piggy-back ride to the bus after the day was over,” Emma said. “She jumped off my back to run into the grass to pick the two dandelions she saw.” After the girl picked the dandelions, she put them in her water bottle like they were flowers. When Emma asked what the girl was going to do with them, the girl said, “‘I want to bring these to my grandma. Aren’t they beautiful?’”

Emma explained that this memory was so significant to her because those dandelions would be seen as weeds to us and most likely have been killed by fertilizer that day, while they were seen as flowers to that little girl. Emma said that moments like this show us how, “there are so many simple things we take for granted.”

The Sheppard students are always so appreciative for everything that CB South does for them. This is not coincidental; the students are taught to be thankful.

The previous principal of Sheppard, James Otto, made strides to ensure that the children were learning not only curricular lessons, but also life lessons, according to the previous supervisor for the Sheppard Project, Mrs. Bainbridge. She described Principal Otto as “the most inspiring educator” she had ever met because he taught the kids so much about life.

Otto made sure that the kids were always appreciative of everything that they were given. Mrs. Bainbridge told of a memory she had when one boy opened his present and said to Principal Otto that he did not like what he was given.

Some of the South students offered to give him a new one, but Otto said no. He wanted the boy to keep the present and be thankful for what he was given.

“You learn a lot from them about what’s important in the world,” said Ms. Mattern.

The Sheppard Project is an experience that affects both sides of the equation; it brings immense happiness to children who live in underprivileged circumstances and perspective to those who get involved with the organization.