By Mary Jane Fine
Morning broke sunny and bright, the temperature a proper pre-Christmas 34 degrees, on the mid-December day when the Giving Season shifted into overdrive at the Gulf Stream School with a frantic flurry of good will.
The daily parade of SUVs deposited children in front of the private school’s portico, just before 8 a.m. The children hurried toward classrooms, a tad faster than usual, perhaps, to outrun the chill wind, the occasional Santa cap’s pompom bobbing on a shoulder.
Minutes later, teacher Dave Winans stood in front of Gulf Stream’s chapel, waving fifth-graders into place and distributing black, 30-gallon Glad trash bags to this group of eager 10- and 11-year-olds, because it is their grade that, each year, organizes the school’s holiday toy drive.
The tradition dates back 20 years at least, he said, his neck on a near-swivel as he checked to ensure that toy-collecting bags are ready to receive their fill.
And, yes, here they came: an avalanche of children from the Lower School (grades 1 through 4), arms laden with parcels, some nearly as big as they are. The Upper School (grades 5 through 8) followed.
“In here!” called Corrina Mullen, who held open a bag with the help of McKenzie Kupi and Lucy Green. “Put ’em in here, in the bag!”
The children attending Gulf Stream give presents to Hagen Road Elementary School children whose parents are migrant workers and clients of the Caridad Center clinics, which provide free dental and eye care and flu shots to the uninsured working poor.
Into the bags went toy after toy: a box of Legos, a box of wooden blocks, several skateboards, a neon-orange plush creature that might have been a dog or a fox or an antlerless-reindeer, a Santa Express train set, a Barbie doll in a two-piece bathing suit, an Xtrm Micro Rally set that promised “0 to 60 in seconds (scale speed),” a Scrabble game, a Circo nature camp combo pack … and much, much more.
If Santa Claus is Father Christmas, then Mother Christmas here is Bessie Armour, who began the toy drive and the food drive that preceded it nearly three decades ago.
Her three children and six grandchildren all attended Gulf Stream School; her six great-grandchildren would, too, if they didn’t live in Massachusetts and California. But loyalty to her offsprings’ alma mater doesn’t fully explain this undertaking. Nor does Armour, who says simply and modestly that, “I get a lot more from it than they do.”
From the chapel floated the sounds of Christmas and, though it had already ended, of Hannukah, too: Here Comes Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman and Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel sang dozens of children’s voices, background music to warm the hearts, if not the hands, of schoolmates still outside.
Quick as a reindeer, it seemed, the job was done, a yellow school bus backed up, its rear door open, ready to be loaded.
The fifth-graders hoisted the bags, 20 of them, clumsy and heavy now, tugging or lugging them to the bus. Sean Lynch, Philipp Reutter’s bagging partner, slung a bag over his shoulder, Santa style, its weight spinning him halfway around before he tamed it.
Inside the bus, chief elf Joe Mayorga, who works maintenance the rest of the year, offered muscle and years of experience in loading the freight. Bus driver Jose Colón, another toy drive veteran, waited, smiling and patient, for the signal to drive west.
Bessie Armour drove west, too. She used to attend the parties at which the gifts were given — the Saturday after the collection, this time — but not lately, not since the event has grown so huge: 800 presents. She remembers, though, how it was.
“Oh, the children were just jumping up and down,” she said, sounding as though she might do the same. “It’s real Christmas to them.”