Bringing Hope to CPS Students

Dec 16, 2020

Kindergarten through third grade students at a dozen Chicago Public Schools know the Christmas season has officially begun when they see a familiar sight: Salvation Army officers. For decades now, a handful of Army officers and cadets (officers in training) have visited these schools each fall to present an assembly filled with singing and storytelling. At the end, they usually present each child with a pencil case or some other small gift.

“The kids look forward to it,” said Barbara Relerford, retired assistant principal at Willa Cather School in the Garfield Park neighborhood. Though she’s retired, she still helps with things like this annual assembly. “These are still my kids,” she said. “This is still my school.”

This school, like all CPS schools, has looked different this year. The fall term has been completely virtual, meaning the assembly would need to be as well. Captain Heather Montenegro, the Army’s divisional youth secretary, and her team decided to seize this opportunity to mix things up a bit with their virtual assembly.

They chose to focus on literacy, buying each child a book so they could read along with the program’s story using their very own copy. They also gathered craft supplies for each child so they could make an ornament together. In the video program, a cadet and her kindergarten-age son led the craft demonstration.

They rounded out the bag for each student with a face mask and information about The Salvation Army’s programs. “This year we did something extra special with the book and the mask,” Captain Heather said. The Salvation Army has seen the elevated needs throughout Chicago during the pandemic. “If you have a choice between putting food on the table or buying PPE, you choose the food,” she said. “It was great to be able to give the students something so practical.”  

Prior to the program, parents were encouraged to go to the school to pick up a goodie bag for their kids. The day the program was scheduled to be shown, there were a few technical difficulties. Captain Heather wound up joining the video classrooms virtually and sharing the pre-recorded program live. The silver lining is that she got to see all the student’s faces as they read along in their books and proudly held up their completed crafts.

The video also included some sing-along Christmas songs and an explanation about why Salvation Army officers wear uniforms and ring bells at Christmas. “One of our team told them that The Salvation Army thinks you’re special, we’re a safe place, and we’re here to help everybody,” said Captain Heather.

In a school year like no other, Barbara appreciated something familiar for the students. “So much has changed this year,” she said. “They need things like this that are familiar. It helps ground them. This program is part of our school culture.”

Captain Heather said she and her team were grateful to provide some programming for schools that are among the least resourced in the district. “Most of all, we wanted the students to see hope in these crazy times,” said Captain Heather.

“The kids really enjoyed the story, the singing, and making the ornament,” said Barbara. “Hopefully, next year we can do it in person!”

Watch the virtual assembly

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For tax purposes: The Salvation Army Metropolitan Division EIN is 36-2167910.

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