Toys surround the kindergarten Christmas trees this week as students and their families bring in gifts for children who are patients at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. This year, the toy drive began on Dec. 4 and runs through Dec. 11.
The Pinon family sponsors the kindergarten community service project each year. Sally Pinon coaches NRCA's middle school boys and girls soccer teams, and her husband, Ed Pinon, coaches the varsity boys and girls soccer teams and teaches ninth-grade Bible and PE. Twenty years ago this month, their son Gabe (Class of 2018) was diagnosed with leukemia. Gabe is currently in remission.
During those difficult days, the hospital helped make Christmas special by giving Gabe and his brother gifts that people donated to UNC. In addition to the Christmas gifts, when Gabe received difficult treatments during the year, he got to choose a toy from the toy closet there. Paying forward the kindness of strangers who blessed their family, the Pinons organized an annual toy drive through NRCA to make Christmas special for other families whose children are in the hospital, especially during the holiday season.
"The kids love this. They love going with their parents, picking out a toy, and buying it. They love bringing it in and being able to put it under our class Christmas tree," said Leane Cahoon, an NRCA kindergarten teacher. "We did a lot of talking in class about why children at the hospital might need Christmas toys at this time—because moms and dads are focusing on helping them get better and might not be able to go out and buy toys."
NRCA's focus on community service begins in kindergarten and continues through high school. Elementary students take part in grade-level projects throughout the year.
"It's just exciting to see them come in and want to give when so often we're focused on what we get for Christmas, especially at this age. It's nice to see the students come in excited, and I think it creates a special time between parent and child, getting to go and purchase the gift knowing that it's going to go to a child who needs a happy Christmas," Cahoon said.
When the annual service project wraps up, the Pinon family visits UNC Hospitals to deliver the toys collected by the kindergarten classes.