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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Marion Independent School District’s Holiday Giving Project may be the largest one yet this year as the needs of students and families continue to increase.
The Holiday Giving Project, which has been around for more than a couple of decades, is a program in which community members and organizations “adopt” families in the school district for the holidays and provide them with gifts and food. Alternatively, people can provide gift cards if they don’t want to shop due to the pandemic.
District Social Worker Michelle Wilson said she has seen more need from students and their families in recent years. As of last Tuesday, she said, 174 families are in the program, the most ever.
“I think there is a greater need for sure, especially the last couple of years with COVID and the derecho,” Wilson said. “But I think we’re a blessed community to have more people to be able to adopt them.”
Multiple organizations adopt families for the project, including the city of Marion. Marion Cares, a group of churches, usually adopts about 45 to 50 families. In addition, businesses, rotary groups, senior living places and other organizations also adopt families.
Wilson, 58, has taken the lead as the organizer of the project on top of her role as the district social worker, and has been involved since she arrived to the school district in 1995.
“The project has been around the whole time I’ve been here and was here before I came,” Wilson said. “A couple of teachers adopted a handful of families, like four to eight, and it’s now taken on a life of its own but it’s awesome.”
Inside the district, all of the schools are involved in the project, Wilson said. Students help adopt families as well as help organize all of the items. Food drives are held in each school building, too.
Last year, due to the pandemic, students weren’t involved in the project in an attempt to keep people apart.
“We were in a storefront in Marion Square and we were able to use it to stage things,” Wilson said. “We hope to have more student participation again this year and I’m glad we’re able to stage everything in the auditorium again.”
Superintendent Janelle Brouwer said that Wilson has done a “tremendous” job leading the holiday project as well as the Start School Right school supply drive each year.
“Both projects help to meet basic needs, which in turn support overall well-being, social-emotional development and ultimately support academic success,” Brouwer said. “Michelle remains humble in her work each day, filling a role that is vital for our learners.”
Marion Chamber President Jill Ackerman added that Wilson has “a heart of gold.”
“Her care and compassion for others shines through her work,” Ackerman said. “She remains connected with her students and families even when school is not in session.”
In her main role, outside of being the project’s organizer, Wilson holds student-support groups, family programs, works with the high school substance prevention and suicide prevention groups and is the at-risk coordinator and district homelessness liaison.
“It’s a lot of coordinating,” Wilson said. “I just wanted to make a difference in people’s lives: support, encourage and listen.”
And Wilson sees the need that students have through the pandemic and after the derecho for someone to support, encourage and listen to them.
“People are minimizing issues, but the reality is a lot of our kids know people who lost a job, lost a family member from COVID, lost their home because of the derecho, lost income, faced eviction. Not to mention the loss of socializing and routine for these kids. This all increased fear, anxiety and depression,” she said.
Wilson said she has also noticed students seem to be more willing to talk about issues affecting their mental health compared with students from just a few years ago. This year, the high school’s suicide prevention organization has at least double the amount of students it had in the past. at about 100 students.
“Which tells me kids are concerned about their peers’ mental health,” Wilson said. “Even the principals have noticed and been like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of kids,’ and that’s a positive. People are more willing to talk about mental health.”
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