The gift of giving

Aurora employees play Santa Claus for students in need

Dec. 7, 2010

By mid-December each year, Lisa Tischer's office at Aurora West Allis Medical Center looks more like Santa's workshop than the human resources department. Presents are stacked up against cubicles, forming narrow trails through the office, and on desks, reaching nearly as high as the Christmas tree top.

Tischer runs the hospital's Giving Tree program each holiday season. Giving Tree connects West Allis-West Milwaukee students who may go without Christmas presents with gift-givers, whom Tischer calls "caregivers."

Finding children on the tree

Students in the program, from kindergarten through high school, write down on gift tags what they want or need for Christmas. Their requests are then put on the Giving Tree at Aurora West Allis, where employees (and a few visitors) choose a child (or several) for whom to buy gifts.

The gift tag on the tree includes the student's first name, age and gift requests. Giving Tree leaves it "wide open" how much the caregivers can spend.

Tischer remembers one child who simply asked for a football. Instead, he received a football autographed by all of the Green Bay Packers players.

"He just asked for a football, and this caregiver did the extra leg work," Tischer said. "We get some people who are very, very generous."

Kim McBride, a social worker at James E. Dottke High School, said one family she entered in the program received presents that totaled "easily" $300 or $400.

"The program is unbelievable, what they get," McBride said.

Finding gifts under the tree

Facilitators of the program try to make the students feel like Giving Tree presents are from Santa or their families.

"A lot of the smaller children get them for Christmas, and that's all they have under the tree," Tischer said.

This year students or their parents will pick up the wrapped presents next week.

Mary Gollberg, the secretary at Horace Mann Elementary School, picks up the presents for her school from Aurora. When parents come to pick up the presents, she helps keep the secret.

"I put them in big black plastic garbage bags so (students) can't see," Gollberg said. "I kind of disguise it."

Older students often receive gift cards and pick up their own presents from their school's Giving Tree contact.

Social workers and principals from 17 West Allis-West Milwaukee schools suggest children they believe need Christmas presents, then get permission from their parents. This year there were "247 children on the tree," Tischer said.

The social workers or secretaries choose children for the program based on economic need. They know which students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

"Just being the school secretary, being on the front lines, I know the children who are in need," Gollberg said. "I know who will be appreciative."

No child left behind

The Giving Tree has been up since Nov. 19. There are only a few names left.

"I keep my fingers crossed they all go," Tischer said of the remaining gift tags.

For any unclaimed names on the tree, Tischer will "pass a hat" and buy the gifts herself.

"In the past we had unlimited amounts of students," Tischer said, noting that in 2008 Aurora employees bought gifts for 378 kids. "We had to cut it down because the economy went down."

This year each school could choose 15 students for the program, but Tischer said "some of the schools call and say, 'Can I just add one more, two more?' " She OK'd the extra students.

Giving Tree also began grouping families together, so siblings too young for school aren't left out. Some departments at the hospital adopt whole families.

The families certainly are appreciative, according to Tischer.

"I've had mothers call me, sobbing that I've made their children's Christmas," she said. "I've gotten 'thank you' cards from children. I've gotten pictures of children opening their presents."

And it's not just recipients who enjoy the Giving Tree.

"Both of my own children take a name," Tischer said. She said they always want her to choose little girls for them because they, too, enjoy buying the dolls and clothes.

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