By KATHRYN FLAGG
ORWELL — When you hear “Santa Shop” it might conjure up images of a frosty North Pole workshop, staffed by Christmas elves and jolly old St. Nick himself.
Think again, at least if you find yourself at the Orwell Village School come Christmastime.
Every year, volunteers at the school transform the town hall gym into their very own “Santa Shop,” where students at the K-8 school can — for the price of just one dollar — select gifts for their families.
The hundreds of gifts — some brand new, some as good as new — are all donated by Orwell residents, and arranged on tables for the children to sift through. There are stuffed animals, puzzles and piles of toys for siblings. Earrings and ornaments, candleholders and coffee cups, bells and books — the choices are seemingly endless.
There may not be reindeer or elves manning this Santa Shop — but as children from the school streamed into the gym last Thursday, sifted through tables piled high with goodies, and consulted with each other on gift ideas, this particular incarnation proved just as festive as that North Pole outpost.
The Santa Shop tradition is among the school’s oldest — with a genesis that no one can quite pinpoint anymore.
Cathy Dundon, who heads up the event now, said the Santa Shop was already well established by the time she moved to Orwell 25 years ago.
“(Kids) like to give presents, too,” she said with a small smile and a shrug. “They’re usually the ones who are stuck home with the babysitters (during Christmas shopping).”
As a batch of second-graders piled into the gym mid-morning — the shop serves the school’s youngest students first — Dundon explained that the Santa Shop is such a well-established program that she has inquiries about the shop as early as mid-summer from folks looking to add their donations to the pile.
“I tell them, ‘Hold off until at least Thanksgiving, because I have to store all of this stuff,’” she said.
During the sale itself, Dundon, along with other parent volunteers, staffed “wrapping stations” positioned in the corners of the gym. Each class had a half hour to shop, and as soon as one group departed, another marched in out of the cold.
Last Thursday, the students came prepared. They each held a small envelope emblazoned with their name, which in turn contained the small paper nametags they’d carefully written out for each family member.
Selecting gifts was a serious affair for many of the kids.
Anna Harrigan, 7, for instance, spent a long time trying to find a gift for her father. Her mom and brother were already ticked off her list, so she scrutinized the long array of potential presents with a careful eye.
Seth Gebo, 7, was among the stragglers, the last to finish selecting gifts. With 10 family members and friends to “buy” for, he had a particularly long list (as well as a particularly heavy box of wrapped presents, which one volunteer promised to bring by his classroom later).
Gebo lingered near a table sporting children’s toys, trying to find a gift for Isaac, a two-year-old foster child who stays with his family from time to time.
He by-passed puzzles and Lego toys, and eventually settled on a small book for Isaac that he dutifully carted over to the gift-wrappers.
Orwell Village School Principal Sue DeCarolis looked on as the children went about their holiday shopping. One of the benefits of this particular December tradition, she said, is it does away with some of the daunting financial barriers that might otherwise accompany the holiday season.
“I think it gives the kids an opportunity to do something for their families … that really doesn’t involve a great amount of money,” she said. If children don’t have the suggested one-dollar donation to chip in, she explained, they’re still allowed to shop with their classmates.
Plus, she said, it’s a “green” service to the community — a way for gently used items to be put to new use.
DeCarolis roamed about the gym while the second-graders shopped, helping a few youngsters as they made tough decisions.
“I just like to watch the kids shop,” she admitted. “When I watch them, they’re not racing from table to table. They’ve come with a list and they’ve thought about it.”
Afterwards, several of the second-graders clutched their purchase-laden bags and smiled at the prospect of playing Santa Claus in just a week’s time.
Camey Tupper, 8, said she was sure that her parents were going to like their gifts.
“I think my dad’s going to freak,” said Tupper.
Joellen Felkl wrapped presents in one corner of the gymnasium while her son Derek snuck over to the opposite corner. Dundon took the single, small present Derek held in his hands and began wrapping it up. Derek explained that his mother was busy wrapping his presents to other family members, but that he was bound and determined for her present to be a surprise.
Felkl, later, explained that she’s been volunteering at the Santa Shop for eight years, since her older son — now a seventh-grader — came to the Orwell school in kindergarten. It’s a holiday tradition she loves.
“It’s so much fun,” Felkl said. “The kids are so excited — they’re so proud of their purchases.”
The North Pole it may not be — but for Orwell’s school children, their homegrown Santa Shop was just what St. Nick ordered.