By Amiee Thompson
Rachel Bohannon says she’s selfish.
If she is, it’s in a heart-as-big-as-Santa kind of way.
Bohannon, an English teacher at Great Falls High, took over the Giving Tree at the school 13 years ago, helping hundreds of low-income high schoolers experience Christmas joy.
The program brought gifts to 131 of Great Falls High’s students in need this month. For some, it is the only present they will open.
And while the program is about the Bison family coming together to help each other, Bohannon knows they are reaching some of the kids most vulnerable to drop out of school or choose a less-savory path.
“I’m selfish and I’d like to think that an act of kindness will help turn them around,” she said. “It might be the beginning of a change in their life.”
The teachers and staff at the high school make such a difference in our youth. Even a program like this – funded entirely by donations – is changing the dynamics of our young ones. It’s showing those in need that someone does care.
Change is evident in the stories she tells:
A few years ago, a high school boy’s Christmas wish list landed on the Great Falls High Bison Giving Tree. The woman who chose the tag, who was also an “elf” in the program, stretched her $40 limit a bit, and on the day of the big party, the boy had a stack full of beautifully wrapped presents to open.
“Some of them can’t resist a wrapped present,” said Bohannon.
When the boy walked into the party and saw the big stack of presents, the elves encouraged him to open at least one of the presents. He could take the rest home and save them for Christmas, they assured him.
“He opened up one and it was a new pair of shoes,” said Bohannon.
As he tried them on, he told the elves he hoped they fit as he had to guess what size he was since it had been several years since he’d had a new pair of shoes.
That was evident to the elves, as the shoes were in rough shape, and they smelled poorly. After he discovered they fit, one elf offered to throw the old shoes away.
“But let me take out the shoelaces because these are my brother’s and he was letting me borrow them until I got some new ones,” said the boy.
The elf who’d purchased the shoes had to leave the room, tears streaming down her face.
“There are stories like that every year,” said Bohannon. “These kids are so grateful.”
When Bohannon took it over 13 years ago, she said she wanted to do it her way. That meant forming “an ‘A-Team’ of the elf world.”
The “A-Team” is made of adults in the school.
“I have special elves who interview the kids,” she said. These elves tell the potential recipients that someone in the school thinks they are special. The elves explain the program to the kids, who then decide if they want to participate.
More than 200 students were nominated, mostly by teachers, to be a part of the program this year.
“Some kids are very good at hiding it,” she said.
And others decide not to participate.
It is all confidential. “I’ve promised the kids as much anonymity as possible,” she said. Bohannon is the only person who knows the identity of all the kids.
Other elves are on the wrapping team. “This might be the only present these kids may open, so bad wrapping is not allowed,” Bohannon said. And no gift bags are allowed.
One elf was fired by the other elves as a gift wrapper – she is now a ribbon runner.
Other elves sew stockings. “They are hand-made with love,” she said. “They will last forever.”
The stockings are filled with the year’s spirit shirt, a t-shirt with a Bison logo designed by a student.
“These kids want to show their spirit, but they can’t afford it,” she said.
Anyone with any affiliation with the Bison family can pick up a tag and purchase gifts. That means teachers, staff, alumni or current Bison families.
“Some of the Bison alum who have been in the program now help out,” Bohannon said. “That always makes me happy when they say, ‘it’s my way to pay it forward.’”
The kids fill out a wish list. “But so many times they are needs – socks, underwear, shoes, sheets,” she said.
Some of them are asking for their siblings.
There is no budget for the program anymore, and it is entirely run by fundraising. Bohannon fundraises for the sprit shirts each year and pretty much everything else is donated, even the wrapping paper.
“That’s why it’s still going 13 years later,” she said.
Bohannon’s classes also raise money to help the cause. They raise the funds and she does the shopping.
“My kids in my classes took care of 15 kids this year,” she said.
The students always want to help out, but because the kids’ privacy is protected, students are not allowed to be a part of the ‘A’ team. She always has things they can do, though. They cut out tags, fold t-shirts and cut out stockings.
Bohannon shares the past stories with her classes, to help them understand the kids their quarters and dimes are going to each year.
“What a different world if they can see how much their effort means to someone,” she said.
For Bohannon, who has five children and two more jobs beyond her teaching duties, that is exactly why she continues to head up the program.
“When you throw that rock in, you never know how big a ripple you are going to cause.”