The Christmas spirit of giving spread through the hallways of South High School and the Westroads Mall on Sunday as hundreds of volunteers turned out for two traditional Omaha events.
More than 200 volunteers from area high schools were on hand at the Westroads for the 53rd annual Ruth Sokolof Christmas Party for visually impaired youngsters. The volunteers escorted a record 153 children as they picked out gifts for their parents and siblings.
“We couldn't do this event without these students giving so much of their time,” said Karen Sokolof Javitch, who organizes the event. She said many of the students are repeat volunteers. “Many ask if they can help the same child because they develop an attachment.”
The outing ended with gift-wrapping, a visit from Santa Claus and a pizza party.
Ruth Sokolof, who died in 1982, was a teacher of the blind. After her death, her husband, Phil Sokolof, ran the event until his death six years ago. Their daughter now organizes the shopping spree with help from the Nebraska Foundation for Visually Impaired Children.
Each child received $100 in Christmas joy — $50 in cash and $25 gift certificates to Younkers and J.C. Penney — from the Sokolof Foundation.
Sotonye Green, a freshman at Westside High, said she will be coming back next year because of the good feeling she got helping Daniel Osborn, 11, of Omaha shop for his family.
“Shopping with Daniel was tons of fun,” Sotonye said. “He's great to hang out with, and he knew exactly what he wanted for gifts.”
Daniel's exuberance was evident as he capped the wrapping of each gift with a big whoop of excitement. As Sotonye handed him a beautiful green bow for the last gift, Daniel kiddingly accused her of “showing off” her gift-wrapping skills.
Another volunteer, Anthony Sufficool of Elkhorn High, said he was more than glad to help Jayden Mehuron, 10, of Omaha select gifts. While knocking off the items on Jayden's list, the pair discussed important things like big-screen TVs and rap music.
“I asked my teachers about rap, and they didn't want to talk about it,” Jayden said. Anthony “understands more.”
Across town at South High, nearly 100 high school and college students volunteered at the Omaha Police Department's 12th annual Santa at the Southeast Precinct Christmas party. Ofelia Robles, a crime prevention specialist with the department, said the students' enthusiasm is heartwarming.
The volunteers — dressed in blue outfits and wearing Santa hats — distributed cookies, milk and gifts to about 3,000 people. South High choir members performed Christmas songs, and Santa Claus, somehow appearing at once in South Omaha as well as the Westroads, listened to children carefully whisper their wish lists.
“These volunteers could be doing a lot of other things today or decide to not come out because it's cold and snowing,” Robles said. “But here they are, my little blue — blue for police — elves.”
Elf Rachel Salinas, a senior at South, greeted visitors at the door. The National Honor Society member said she wouldn't miss the event for anything.
“Because I believe in making a difference in my community and this is a good way to start,” she said.
The event included a presentation on how Christmas is celebrated in different countries around the world. Camila Benevides and her mother, Mary Salano, handed out treats from Colombia.
Benevides, a University of Nebraska at Omaha sophomore, explained that Christmas in her native land is about family, friends and lots of good food. Sharing their family's traditional dishes made Benevides a little less homesick for her grandparents and cousins.
“Colombian people are loving and sharing and welcoming,” she said. “I like (volunteering) because I like being around people and telling them about my home.”
Claudia Zapata of the Midlands Latino Community Development Corp. said members of her agency have partnered with the police during the event for the past seven years.
“We receive more than we give because it makes your heart feel good to help others,” Zapata said. “This might be the only Christmas celebration some of these families have. It may be the only present they receive.
“It's special for them and it's special for me.”