Some find the spirit of Christmas in the colorful glow of the lights on their Christmas tree.  Others prefer getting cozy under a warm blanket with a good book and a steaming mug of hot chocolate.  For some, all it takes is tapping along to Christmas classics on the radio, and they know the Christmas season has begun.

For Mountain Outreach (MO), ushering in the holidays means getting into the spirit of giving. The non-profit organization, run by staff and students at University of the Cumberlands, hosts special events to help out families during the holiday season.

One event, called Kids’ Gift Days, spans several days as Mountain Outreach volunteers travel to local elementary schools to provide the children with gifts for them to give to their parents or guardians for Christmas. Cumberlands athletes are invited to help at the event.

“Besides teaching the kids the joy of giving, it’s all about our students engaging as role models for these little kids,” said Marc Hensley, Director of Mountain Outreach.  “That’s what this is all about.  This all means nothing if we do not engage these kids.  We want our students to really invest in them while we’re here.”

Members of Cumberlands’ women’s lacrosse team, the men’s baseball team, and other teams volunteered at Kids’ Gift Days.  One group of students would meet kids at the door and walk them alongside tables lined with gifts for the kids’ guardians, and the other athletes would help the kids wrap the presents they chose at a separate table nearby.  The kids’ typical conversations with the athletes were about which sports they played and which school subject was their favorite.  Some conversations must have gotten even more exciting, though; they included spontaneous dance moves.

Kids’ Gift Days hold special meaning for Luke Wohlfarth, a freshman baseball player who volunteered this year.  Wohlfarth used to be one of the excited elementary kids in the program.  Now, he’s the “celebrity” he looked up to as a child.

“It’s really cool getting to be the athlete now, coming in,” he said.  “As kids, we had never seen someone compete at that level of sports before.  The college students gave us encouragement.  It opened my eyes to how I could go to college and play baseball in my future.  It’s really neat coming back to where I came from.”

Kids’ Gift Days provided gifts for 1,265 children this year at Whitley North, Whitley East, Pleasant View, and Boston Elementary Schools.

Mountain Outreach also hosted their annual Gift Day this December. Dozens of volunteers walked more than 140 families through the MO warehouse, helping the families choose toys for their children, handing them diapers and baby wipes if they have an infant in the house, and loading approximately 300 pounds of food into their vehicles.

The families’ gratitude was evident.  The moment they came in from the cold, they began smiling.  Approximately 19,000 pounds of kid-friendly foods like hot dogs, ravioli, applesauce, pudding cups, and cereal, plus items like cooking oil, pancake and cornbread mix, canned fruit, crackers, Hot Pockets, and potatoes were stuffed into cars on Gift Day.

Cumberlands students volunteered at this event as well. The majority of students were from the archery team, who has volunteered at Gift Day for several years now.  Archery Coach Kris Strebeck believes it’s a good opportunity for his archers to bond as a team while simultaneously serving the community.  It’s now an annual tradition for the team.

“We love doing stuff like this,” said Strebeck.  “It’s kind of funny because the ones who have done this year in and year out are excited for it, and meanwhile the freshmen are kind of like, ‘What’s going on?’ But after a bit, they jump in and give an extra hand any way they can.”

Some of the families served by Mountain Outreach may not have had a real Christmas otherwise. But now that their cupboards are stocked, they can relax and enjoy the holidays.  The MO volunteers can enjoy them too, knowing that their spirit of giving has made a real difference this holiday season.