ORANGE PARK – Christmas came early for over 500 students at Grove Park Elementary last week thanks to the help of an Orange Park church and their close connection to Santa Claus.
For the past four years, Celebration Church on Kingsley Avenue, has been bringing the Christmas cheer to students at Grove Park. As a handful of volunteers, elves and Kris Kringle himself gathered outside the school, students sat in their classrooms unaware of the gifts coming their way. In each classroom that Santa and his helpers entered on Dec. 12, they were met with the same eruption of happiness, which is why Celebration Church Outreach Coordinator Christina Allen-Mireles makes this day happen each year.
“You’ll see it when you walk in with [Santa],” Allen-Mireles said. “No matter what that kid is feeling before we walk in, they’ll turn into the happiest kid and that’s why we do this.”
Allen-Mireles said Celebration Church purchases over 500 gifts for students to ensure that each kid gets a present on Christmas. Principal Stephanie Jackson is just as thankful for Celebration Church and their Santa as the kids are for the very same reason Allen-Mireles ensures this day happens each year.
“For some kids, this gift might be the only gift they get for Christmas and it’s so amazing that [Celebration Church] is able to do this,” Jackson said.
Celebration Church is a faith-based partner of the school, according to Jackson, so this event is just one of many the church holds throughout the year to promote a positive and heartwarming relationship between the school and the church. Allen-Mireles said the church just wants the students at Grove Park to know someone is looking out for them, always.
In one first-grade class, all of the boys received a nerf gun toy and all of the girls received a gel beads hand spa. Sydney Taylor, 6, had a smile she couldn’t wipe from her face if she tried after opening her gift, hand-delivered by Santa himself.
“Can you believe that?” Taylor said. “Santa gave me this and it’s a hand spa and I’m super excited. This is the best.”
One of Santa’s helpers this year was Deena Hensil. She’s been with Celebration Church for six years, but this was her first year handing out presents at the school. For her, it was more magical than she ever imagined.
“I knew this would be a beautiful thing, but it’s even better than I thought it would be,” Hensil said. “I could cry. I’m so lucky to be here and to see this beautiful experience.”
As Santa and his helpers made their way into each of the classrooms, the experience was the same for Hensil – pure joy. For Hensil, Jackson, Allen-Mireles and others, this is reason for the season.
“This is Christmas,” Hensil said. “This is what Christmas is all about.”