Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Visit from St. Nicholas; Program Brings Books, Backpacks to Local Schools

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Visit from St. Nicholas; Program Brings Books, Backpacks to Local Schools

Article excerpt

Byline: John Carter, Times-Union staff writer

There was an audible gasp when he ducked and strode through the door.

"He's so tall! Is he standing on something?" said one third-grader.

"No, he's our coach. No, he's too big to be our coach," responded another. "He's a giant."

The tall figure -- in a floor-length green velour robe trimmed in white fur to represent St. Nicholas -- was 7-foot-2 basketball legend Artis Gilmore. And he was a big part of the surprise that greeted students at Andrew Robinson Elementary on West 12th Street on Friday morning.

Volunteer Jacksonville worked with various business sponsors and volunteers to create the surprise "Visit from Saint Nicholas" at several Jacksonville schools, providing nearly 50,000 books or small gifts to about 9,000 kids.

Third-grade teacher Jean Beckham said she was as excited as the students about St. Nicholas' visit.

"I couldn't even sleep last night," she said. "I just kept imagining how the kids would react. I knew how excited they'd be, and me too. I guess I'm just a big kid myself sometimes."

More than 500 students at the school were surprised to find "magic" gold tinsel sprinkled throughout the hallways of Andrew Robinson. Soon the gold tinsel had found its way into the hair of many female students who giggled as St. Nicholas passed handfuls of multicolored "coins of kindness."

The Duval County school was one of 18 randomly selected by Volunteer Jacksonville to participate in the event where colorful backpacks loaded with books and educational toys were given to the children.

After gifts were given out, dozens of volunteers read about the legend of St. Nicholas, stressing a lesson of kindness, generosity and community service.

"We not only want the kids to have fun, but to learn a lesson of caring about each other," said Judy Smith, president and CEO of Volunteer Jacksonville. "We also stress the literacy component of the event. But the main thing is to stress a very simple but important lesson: It's more important to give than to receive. …

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