KIPP Lanning Square's Day of Giving Helps Families 'Shop' for Christmas

By GEORGE WOOLSTON, December 17, 2018

CAMDEN,  NJ— Most weekends, school cafeteria tables are often empty of students and teachers, folded up and pushed up against the walls. On Saturday, however, the cafeteria tables inside the KIPP Cooper Norcross Lanning Square Middle School were filling up by the minute with toys and clothes for all ages.

School staff and volunteers were on hand Saturday to prepare for the school’s annual Day of Giving, an event held on Sunday, Dec. 16 that allows for middle school families who cannot afford to buy holiday gifts come to the school and “shop” a selection of donated new items for children and adults.

The event was started four years ago when the school opened by Principal Bridgit Cusato-Rosa.

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Cusato-Rosa, a native of Camden, recalled her eighth-grade Christmas when talking about why she wanted to start the Day of Giving in 2014.

“I got a gift and it was like a Hanes sweatsuit. My mom just needed help and we were one of those families you adopted, and I remember opening it and it was the same color sweatshirt and sweatpants. I remember pretending to be happy, because my mom is amazing,” Cusato-Rosa said. “People donate a lot of things to Camden, and I think just because you can’t afford it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have choice.”

Each year, Lockheed Martin’s Camden office, along with the school’s staff, collects newly donated toys and clothes that are spread out across the school’s cafeteria. Then, on the day of the event, parents receive tickets for each member of their family and are allowed to shop around for gifts for their family.

“You can come here and get all the services you need,” said Sarah Watson, director of the school’s community service club. “You need a little bit of help around the holidays, we got you. Anything you need, we got you … it's my favorite thing we do here, definitely. Families remember it, they ask about it, they rely on it at this point, and that’s what I love about our school — we’re now a part of their lives.”

The event is staffed only by teachers and features a babysitting room and gift wrapping station.

“Often times, when you don’t have [a lot], you don’t get the simple things like the unwrapping of a gift that you didn’t know,” Cusato-Rosa said. “Sometimes we forget about the feeling and anticipation.”

The principal said that the size of the event and the number of families helped grows each year. This year, around 75 KLSM families were expected to benefit from Sunday’s event.

Students, media and outside volunteers are not allowed to attend on the day of the event, Cusato-Rosa said, “so you can shop and not be on display.”

“I think we do a really good job at making families feel like this is what you’re supposed to do. If it really is a village, it's a village and there is no judgment, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed. It’s like, I may not need it today, but I needed it yesterday. And you may not need it today, but you need it tomorrow,” Cusato-Rosa said.

“You can tell families don’t feel embarrassed, or that we’re just trying to be white knights or something,” Watson said.

Staff members will also put together packages for families that weren’t able to make it on Sunday, Watson said, and deliver them to the families’ homes.

This year, the renaissance school has also started the KIPP Closet — a collection of gently used coats, hats, gloves and other clothing donated by the school’s teachers. Parents are free to take any items needed from the KIPP Closet, which is open at any after-school event throughout the year.