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DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — A teacher at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Chapel Hill has spent the past eight years organizing a Christmas outreach project for children in West Virginia's impoverished coal mining country.
Patti Wagner, who teaches second grade at the school adjacent to St. Thomas More Catholic Church, plans to deliver 323 boxes of gifts to Dingess Elementary School this weekend in Dingess, West Virginia. The boxes are filled with scarves, hats and gloves along with toys and books for 183 elementary school students and their siblings. Each box is filled by families of pre-K through fifth-grade students at St. Thomas More.
Weather permitting, Wagner and other St. Thomas volunteers will drive to Mingo County, which borders Kentucky, and deliver the Christmas boxes to Dingess Elementary School Principal Don Spence. Teachers will then divvy up the presents and put students' names on them under each classroom's Christmas tree.
Spence said that at least three coal mines have closed over the years.
"We don't have any economic advantage here at all," Spence said in a phone interview Tuesday. "One hundred percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch. They're in a very impoverished area, he said, but are still proud of their community. Since the mines closed, there's nothing around for employment, he said. Dingess has one gas station and one restaurant.
"We're between a tunnel and a mountain," Spence said.
Wagner moved to North Carolina in 2006 from Pennsylvania, where her church group did a similar project for children in coal mining areas there. Here, she looked to Orange and Chatham counties but found there were other location organizations that helped those in poverty at the holidays. Eventually she was referred to Dingess Elementary through the local church there. For the first year of Appalachian Shoebox Christmas, participants were her second grade class at St. Thomas More and its "prayer partner," another class students are paired with annually. It's expanded over the years to include pre-K through fifth and also a few older students who started with the project as Wagner's students.
Wagner put together three boxes with her grandsons. Boxes are coded by gender and age, but do not include the Dingess Elementary students' names. Wagner's family boxes included pajamas, hats, scarves, gloves, experiments, a craft, stuffed animal and Magic Treehouse books. Her grandsons - ages 7, 9 and 13 - picked out the items. She told them the same thing she told her students: "If this was the only Christmas gift you were going to get, what would you want?"
She also reads her students a story about a wealthy man who delivered packages for children at Christmas by train.
Dingess is not easily accessible. The drive options are either up to Charleston, West Virginia, and down to Dingess; or right up to Dingess but through a dark tunnel and winding mountain roads.
One December, a snowstorm kept Wagner in the mountains for three days. As mines have closed in recent years, so too has a drive by miners to provide for 30 "poorest of the poor" families with clothing and gifts. So Wagner has taken that on, too.
Spence said there are local programs by the West Virginia State Police and nonprofits around Dingess that help those who are most in need.
"But Patti took it upon herself to adopt the whole school," he said. When the Dingess Elementary students come to school the week of Dec. 15, they'll see their names on gifts waiting under their class tree, "sort of like Santa Claus," Spence said. "They look forward to it every year. That's our end of the year celebration - an activity in the gym and singing, and then back to class (to open presents)."
He said the reaction of the children is unbelievable. "It's a wonderful day when that happens. They get on the school bus and leave with a smile on their face."
Spence said he can't say enough about Wagner and her diligence in making sure all the students have Christmas boxes - and their siblings, too.
"We're so thankful and blessed, and there are no words how it makes us feel and our kids feel," he said.
Information from: The Herald-Sun, http://www.herald-sun.com
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