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Concern for Independent Living

Uniqua holds her two new teddy bears tightly. She received the gifts from members of Mount Sinai's Students Against Destructive Decisions club. Photo by Kevin Redding

Just one night at Mount Sinai High School helped to make the season bright for local families in need.

For Christmas, all 6-year-old Uniqua really wanted was an Elf on the Shelf toy, a gift her mom struggled to afford. But Moniqua McGee, who lives with her daughter at Concern for Independent Living in Medford, knew she had nothing to worry about. She had Mount Sinai high schoolers to rely on.

A family from Concern for Independent Living receive gifts from Mount Sinai children through Hauppuage-based nonprofit Christmas Magic. Photo by Kevin Redding

On Dec. 6, during the Students Against Destructive Decisions club’s Christmas Magic dinner in the high school’s cafeteria, a beaming Uniqua not only got her wish, but two new teddy bears and holiday-themed face paint, too. She even met Santa Claus and Rudolph.

“I’m grateful they’re doing this for the families and putting smiles on the kid’s faces,” said Moniqua McGee, who has been coming to the event the past five years. “It works every time.”

The McGees were just one of dozens of families from the Medford nonprofit enjoying the holiday spirit in the room. An 18-year partnership between the Hauppauge-based organization Christmas Magic and the SADD club, the Christmas soiree served as the ultimate payoff of a shopping spree by the students Dec. 1. Under the supervision of SADD club advisors John Wilson and John McHugh, they spent that day rushing around Smith Haven Mall and Walmart to buy gifts for more than 60 boys and girls from Concern for Independent Living, which provides housing and employment help for struggling families, based on wish lists they wrote to Santa. The school district also raised $8,000 for Christmas Magic.

Members of Mount Sinai’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club watch children open up presents. Photo by Kevin Redding

“I’m happy and proud to be part of a program and district that not only encourages, but fosters this type of activity,” McHugh said. “The students involved display the best we have to offer … we have grown our program every year and that makes me feel great.”

With all the gifts wrapped and labeled, every kid left the dinner with at least three presents given to them by Santa, played by rosy red cheeked wrestling icon Mick Foley, who also posed for pictures. Christmas tunes blared through the cafeteria’s speakers as families ate chicken, pasta and desserts, and SADD club members — some dressed up in costume — went around the room with little gift bags of extra toys for attendees. SADD club members also played games and watched “Elf” with the kids.

“It’s so nice to be able to see all the kids here and see them get the gifts we got for them,” said Allie Garrant, an 11th grader and SADD club member, who picked up a lacrosse stick and Rubik’s Cube for a 13-year-old boy. “Just seeing their faces — it’s a whole different thing. It’s like, ‘Wow, these are real people I’m helping’ and you get to see firsthand the difference you’re making.”

Renato Lugo, whose four children were ecstatic over their gifts, expressed his gratitude to those involved in the event.

Students dressed up to entertain children during a Christmas Magic dinner at Mount Sinai High School. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s a beautiful thing to have organizations like these that help out and take care of people in need,” said Lugo, who has been aided by Concern for Independent Living for six years. “The students bring joy and cheer and they make my kids very happy.”

His 12-year-old daughter, Elena, was ecstatic receiving a long-sleeve Unicorn pajama shirt from Santa.

“I think it’s really amazing I got the present I wanted,” Elena said. “And the food is amazing and everyone’s so happy. I love SADD. They’re really like another Santa.”

Kim Dellamura, who’s been at the nonprofit agency for six months, said the event allowed her 4-year-old daughter MacKenzie to have a Christmas.

“It feels good because I don’t know how much I would’ve been able to give her this year,” Dellamura said. “So this really helps out a lot. She loves it.”

For Lawrence Aurigemma, the event is a perfect reflection of what this time of year means.

“This season is all about peace and generosity,” said Aurigemma, a military veteran whose 14-year-old son received Pokemon cards. “These students are just fantastic. They go out of their way to help out the less fortunate people here. It’s a wonderful thing. They knew exactly what to get my son … he’s so happy.”

Smithtown resident and former WWE wrestler Mick Foley dishes out gifts to children. Photo by Kevin Redding

Also at the event was Christmas Magic founder Charlie Russo and representatives of Concern for Independent Living, including case managers Ella Cantave and Julio Villarman, who were excited to see their clients enjoying the holidays.

“It’s a very special day for them,” Cantave said. “It took a lot of effort to make it happen and to make it nice for them.”

As everybody in the room sang “Jingle Bells,” Santa arrived and joined in. Each kid’s name was called out to sit down with the big man in the red suit.

Foley, who has been a volunteer with Christmas Magic since 2000 and officially assumed the role of Santa for the organization in 2014, said he looks forward to the event all year round.

“It’s a great organization — they spread joy and happiness to so many of the less fortunate in the community, and it’s an honor to wear the red suit and represent Christmas Magic,” Foley said before turning his attention to the SADD club. “I make it a point to thank all of them because I think it’s wonderful that they get involved in volunteer work at a young age. They do a great job and it’s really easy for me to show up and get a lot of the credit from children, but the truth is, without them, absolutely none of this is possible.”

Mount Sinai Students Against Destructive Decisions club members organize gifts that will be donated to children at Concern for Independent Living in Medford through the Hauppauge-based nonprofit Holiday Magic. Photo by Kevin Redding

Mount Sinai High School students took on the roles of Santa and his elves to make sure local children in need have gifts to open this Christmas.

In a continued collaboration with Hauppauge-based nonprofit Christmas Magic, 43 members of the school’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club embarked on shopping sprees at Smith Haven Mall and Walmart Dec. 1 to bring holiday cheer to underprivileged children. They set out to find gifts for more than 60 boys and girls from Concern for Independent Living, a nonprofit agency in Medford that provides permanent housing for homeless families, based on wish lists they wrote to Santa.

With $4,500 supplied by Christmas Magic, SADD club members bought more than 100 gifts — each child receives about three — from wireless headphones to action figures and dolls, to sweatshirts and diapers.

Members of Mount Sinai’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club unpack gifts to be donated after going shopping. Photo by Kevin Redding

Back at the high school, the students turned the cafeteria into a makeshift Santa’s workshop. They organized the gifts, piled them into garbage bags and sent them off on a big truck to be wrapped and delivered back to the school Dec. 6, where the district hosts a dinner for the children and their families, where club members join Santa Claus himself in presenting the wrapped gifts.

“I think this teaches the students compassion,” said John Wilson,  a special education teacher and the SADD Club’s co-advisor who said the district is in its 18th year of involvement with the program. “When they see some of the lists — and there’s a jacket or something they take for granted — I think it humbles them and makes them appreciate what they have.”

In one letter, which included a drawing of a smiling snowman and a Christmas tree, a young boy asked Santa for a tech watch and a lightsaber. In another, a girl asked for a pair of boots and a unicorn onesie.

“I love getting the lists,” said Julie Pfeiffer, an 11th grader and SADD club member, who picked up wrestling action figures and Roblox toys for a 7-year-old boy. “We get these lists from them, in their own handwriting, and it’s so sweet. We’re able to give them what they want, directly. It warms my heart so much.”

High school senior Ruchi Thaker bought a sports kit and learning toys for a 1-year-old boy as well as a My Little Pony toy and a bracelet making gift set for a little girl. Junior Rebecca Muroff tracked down a specific brand of hoodie and phone case for a 15-year-old girl.

“You just feel good about doing this,” said Emma Wimmer, a senior who bought a Nike sweatshirt, a pair of sneakers and pants for two teenage boys.

Margaret Kopcienski, a junior and president of SADD Club, said this is her favorite event of the year and said prior to the Dec. 6 dinner that she looked forward to meeting the children at the high school.

“We’re able to give them what they want, directly. It warms my heart so much.”

— Margaret Kopcienski

“It’s really magical seeing how happy they are,” Kopcienski said. “It’s a great time and really cool to see the result of all our hard work and how much joy the presents bring to them.”

The school district will also be reimbursing Christmas Magic more than $7,500 raised during its Turkey Trot 5K and Fun Run Nov. 25, an annual fundraising event run by SADD co-advisor and history teacher John McHugh. Last year, upwards of 11,000 kids across Long Island were gifted through the nonprofit.

“It’s an amazing feat that the students and staff at Mount Sinai make this happen every year,” said Charlie Russo, who founded Christmas Magic in 1990 out of a lifelong passion to give back to those less fortunate. “It just speaks volumes as to where the district is and where their community service efforts are. I can’t praise them enough.”

Russo said Christmas Magic has been working alongside Concern for Independent Living, one of about 70 agencies involved, since the nonprofit was formed.

Concern for Independent Living was formed in 1972 and has been recognized as the largest nonprofit provider of supportive housing for individuals and families in need on Long Island. Ralph Fasano, the organization’s executive director, said Mount Sinai students have helped families and kids get through the holidays for years.

“All the families come from low-economic brackets and oftentimes there’s not enough money to buy kids gifts,” Fasano said. “When these kids get things they’ve wanted for years — gifts they never thought they’d ever have — it restores some hope for them.”

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