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Gooden Students Learn the Gift of Giving

First published in the Dec. 29 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.

Waking up to find gifts wrapped with love and displayed under a twinkling tree on Christmas Day is a tradition most children look forward to every year. Though, for others, the pastime of gift-giving is a luxury that some families can’t afford — leaving children without the festive feeling that comes along with unboxing something special.
To help spread the holiday spirit where it might otherwise be missing, the Gooden School families donate gifts to those in need through Friends In Deed’s annual Christmas for the Kids program.
With love, from each participating Gooden family to another in the community, four cars-worth of donations — gifts chosen from personalized child’s wish lists — were recently brought to Friends In Deed to be distributed on its designated pick-up day.
Lawrence Loo, whose 8th-grader attends Gooden, said his son was eager to participate in the shopping experience — to share something special with another child. Over the years, Loo’s family has gifted roller-blade skates, Lego toys, gift cards and school supplies.
“We do this to spread the spirit of sharing and send Christmas joy to families and children in need,” Loo said. “It’s a good learning experience for our kids. Oftentimes, Christmas gifts can be taken for granted, but to understand that there are families out there in need, it can be very humbling for them.”
Second grade teacher Emily Keezer, who is also the director of Episcopal Identity at Gooden, has spearheaded the school’s gift-giving efforts for Friends In Deed since 2017. In recent years, the school has nearly doubled the number of families they sponsor, from about 30 to 60.
“As an Episcopal school, our goal is to teach all the students that we help because we are kind, caring people,” Keezer said. “Everybody should help everybody, no matter what. That’s what we try to instill in our kids.
“Our school’s motto is ‘Respect for self. Respect for others. Respect for the world,’ and this is just one way that we are showing our respect to others in our community,” she added.
Although Gooden has been a longtime partner of Friends In Deed and regularly gives back through much of their year-round programming, Keezer said she finds that this opportunity, in particular, resonates with students.

Photo courtesy Tim Nistler
Food Pantry Director Tim Nistler of Friends In Deed received a Christmas ornament years ago from a child belonging to a family on the receiving end of the organization’s gift-giving program — a special memento Nistler said he will always keep.

“Since it’s the holiday season, they’re all excited about Christmas and gifts, so we remind them that we are very fortunate in what we have,” Keezer said. “Through this program, we are able to help others enjoy Christmas just as much as we do with anything we can give — from little gifts to bigger gifts — to spread happiness to other children during Christmastime.”
This year, Food Pantry Director Tim Nistler of Friends In Deed, who leads the nonprofit’s Christmas for the Kids program, said that, in total, 235 children were signed up for gifts, from 95 different families.
“The folks we serve are low income, no income and people on fixed incomes, and the holidays are an expensive time so if being able to help them provide gifts to their kids helps, then right on,” he said. “That’s part of the whole community aspect of what we are trying to do.”
On the pick-up day, usually held on the Sunday before Christmas, Nistler said families don’t always bring the children; however, he is still able to sense the joy of what’s to come by looking at the adults.
“When the parents come and pick up the gifts, it’s the smiles on their faces I see so I can only imagine what it would be like for the kids on Christmas Day,” he said. “But if we do see the kids, you can tell they’re excited. But I see just as much happiness in the parents’ faces.”
One memory of this event that has stayed with Nistler over the years was when a 7th-grader, accompanying her parents, became the gift-giver by handing him a festive, see-through ornament that she made. The keepsake was filled with more than just colorful decoration, it encapsulated a young girl’s gratitude toward those helping to make her Christmas a memorable one.
“I thought to myself, ‘How lovely and thoughtful was it that this little girl wanted to give me a gift because Friends In Deed and the community has helped her and her family,’” he said. “I was touched by it, and I still am, even now.”
Executive Director Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of Friends In Deed said he’s grateful for its community partners, as well as Nistler, its staff and volunteers who have spent hours behind the scenes to make this year’s Christmas for the Kids event a success for the families they serve.
“The program is a way for all of us to extend our support and love to families so they can celebrate the holiday joyfully by providing their children with gifts that they want — and the community comes together to help make that happen,” Levine Grater said.
“This wouldn’t be possible without our partnerships with community organizations, congregations and schools — like the Gooden School — who are incredibly generous and help Friends In Deed in lots of different ways throughout the year,” he added. “It’s really beautiful to see other kids understanding that not everyone is as fortunate as them, and it’s great to see kids help other kids.”
Head of School Jo-Anne Woolner of Gooden said the school prides itself on having children of all ages contribute and appreciate being of service to their community.
“One of our cornerstones of the school is that all students, faculty and families all participate in community outreach, so every grade does it and one of the special things about Friends In Deed is that it offers opportunities for our littlest ones to our 13- or 14-year-olds to be able to engage in activities that they understand,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to teach them that you don’t have to have a lot yourself to be able to help others.”
Beyond the various collection drives and hosting fundraising events, among many other opportunities with Friends In Deed, Woolner said that discussions about community engagement are also had within the classroom setting.
“It’s a ribbon that runs through the entire curriculum,” she said. “If we’re going to be a global citizen, there are global problems we have to examine, and we can start right here in our own small community to see how we can make it better.”

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