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Time for you to play Santa

Updated: December 18, 2013 6:47AM

The afternoon assignment for Cozette Wendemu’s second graders at Brunson elementary school in Austin on Friday was to write a letter to Santa.

As you might expect, the children were brimming with ideas of what Santa might bring them and could hardly wait to put it down on paper.

But the challenge, as the teacher explained to them, was to write a good letter by properly introducing themselves first instead of just asking for presents.

Bria Pryor, 7, shot up with her hand.

“I understand,” Bria said. “If they know more about you, they’ll know what you would like the most.”

Bria is going far in this world, her teacher and I agree.

Bria’s explanation also pretty well sums up what I was doing at her school Friday to kick off the Chicago Sun-Times’ annual Letters to Santa program as part of our Season of Sharing initiative.

With an assist from Santa’s Helpers (that’s where you come in), we expect to fulfill at least 10,000 Letters to Santa this year from pre-schoolers through third graders at about 60 Chicago schools and social service agencies in low-income neighborhoods. We’ll do more if enough of you respond.

And our thinking is that if you know a little more about the kids in the program, you’ll understand why this is a worthwhile cause in which to participate.

The second graders in Ms. Wendemu’s class were extremely polite and welcoming to me, and as well-behaved as you could expect for a bunch of 7-year-olds with an assignment that exposed the wide disparity in reading achievement levels in a neighborhood school classroom.

While Bria and her friend Tiana competed to finish first (“I’m on line 4…I’m on line 6…I’m about to be on the 7th line”) in order to do extra reading, some students were still struggling to compose a sentence 90 minutes after starting.

Careful not to waste a minute of classroom time, Ms. Wendemu wisely crafted the assignment to fit the mandated Common Core curriculum: “With guidance and support from adults and peers, focus on a topic and strengthen as needed by writing and editing.”

“Say it,” instructed the teacher.

“I can stick to a topic. I can revise my writing,” the students repeated.

Most could, but some couldn’t, and I felt their pain, especially of the little boy who had dictated his first draft to a teacher’s aide but asked me to show him where she had written “remote control car” so he could copy it. He didn’t recognize the words.

Ninety-nine percent of the students at Brunson come from low-income families, as defined by CPS. I can tell you from dropping off gifts there in the past that those children go to school in a warm and welcoming environment.

As I have always found to be true at our other participating schools, the students at Brunson look forward every year to the day they receive their gifts at school before starting their Christmas break.

Bria could even name her presents from her kindergarten and first grade years: a Strawberry Shortcake doll and a Barbie Doll with dollhouse. Check out my video of her on our website.

There are two basic ways to take part in Season of Sharing. You can either buy a gift for a needy child through our Letters to Santa program, or you can make a monetary donation to our Empty Stocking Fund.

I happen to be partial to the Letters to Santa side of the operation.

It’s a little more labor intensive than some holiday charity programs, but my experience is the extra effort heightens the sense of satisfaction you’ll receive.

To get started, contact us to request one or more children’s letters either at our website,, by email at or by calling 312-321-3114.

We’ll send you the letter. The kids usually ask for toys or clothes or both, but you decide what to buy.

You don’t have to treat the letter like an order form. Just do your best and let common sense be your guide. Plan on spending $25-$30 per child.

The most important part, and this is where you must not fail, is for you to make sure the gift is delivered to the child’s school or participating agency by the deadline listed on the instructions we’ll send.

Deadlines can vary, but be on your toes because you don’t want to be the one responsible for leaving some child in tears when the gifts are distributed.

Like the television commercials say, it’s not complicated. There’s no downside to helping Santa put a smile on a kid’s face.

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