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Chico State

Planting Hope, Harvesting Joy

A student helps a young boy make a Christmas tree out of green pipecleaners.
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Tessa Greenough (left), helps Alex Razo, 10, of Ponderosa (right), create a tree decoration as students from the College of Agriculture and in the agricultural leadership class (AGRI 380-A) provide an event for families in need following the Camp Fire at the University Farm Pavilion on Tuesday, December 18, 2018 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU Chico)

It wasn’t your typical college final. The fall 2018 “Agricultural Leadership” class did require late-night cramming, but it was piles of gifts and wrapping paper, rather than books and notes, that these students had to work through.

On the day of the final itself, Scantrons, calculators and No. 2 pencils gave way to Santa Claus, cookies, and hundreds of children looking for some holiday cheer, which the AGRI 380A students were more than happy to deliver.

What started in September as a simple, if ambitious, community service project to provide holiday gifts to 30 underprivileged children throughout Butte County became a massive effort in the wake of the Camp Fire. The 32 students in AGRI 380A had to quickly recalibrate.

Student Mary Paschke and instructor Alyssa Schager wrap donated gifts the week before they would be distributed to families.

“We set a goal for ourselves to raise $6,000 to serve 30 kids,” agricultural education major Samantha Bright said of the original class project. “After the fire, the needs changed, and the organization we had been planning to work with had to suspend their program.”

Meanwhile, donations to the class’s Planting Hope, Harvesting Joy project kept pouring in. More than $35,000 in toys, blankets, backpacks, gift cards, and cash arrived.

Instead of finding another organization to work with, the class decided to reach out directly to schools and families impacted by the Camp Fire, and invite them to a distribution event at the University Farm on Tuesday, December 18, the day and time of the class’s scheduled final.

The 32 students and other volunteers pose around a conference table covered in gifts.
All 32 students enrolled in “Agricultural Leadership” and other volunteers from the College of Agriculture helped wrap hundreds of gifts and stuff stockings.

“It spawned into something bigger than we ever anticipated, and it’s been a learning process for sure,” said Bright, a junior. “But I think it’s been really fulfilling and it has certainly turned into a lot more than we thought it was going to.”

The students’ last “study session” of the semester was on a Tuesday morning in Plumas Hall, where they wrapped gifts as fast as they could—tying twine into bows around fleece blankets, stuffing stockings with footballs and markers, and carefully attaching bows to the tops of packages hiding stuffed animals and games.

On the day of the final, 256 students from Paradise elementary schools and 32 additional families attended the event at the University Farm Pavilion, where they decorated cookies, visited with Santa, and celebrated with festivities. Laughter and smiles filled the room as a faculty member encouraged children to show off their silliest dance moves and others giggled playing holiday-themed games.

 A student talks to a child at the cookie-decorating table, as another child takes a bite of a frosted cookie.
Andrew Banuelos helps children decorate cookies—just one of many activities to delight and entertain them at the gift giveaway.

As festive music played over the sound system, AGRI 380A students and volunteers compiled sets of gifts and gift cards for each participant. An additional 33 teenagers from Paradise also attended to spend time together and receive gift certificates from the class.

“It was honestly the best version of collaboration and group work I’ve been a part of,” agricultural education major Matt Bongiovanni, a senior, said. “It wasn’t just the usual situation where a few volunteers do the bulk of the work. Everyone jumped in and helped out, including lots of professors and students who aren’t even in our class. I think people were really inspired by the project.”

Students fill both sizes of banquet tables to frost cookies in the University Farm Pavilion.
More than 254 Paradise students, 32 families, and 33 teenagers from Paradise attended the event at University Farm Pavilion.

“Agricultural Leadership” instructor Alyssa Schager said the project drove home the concepts students learned throughout the semester, especially those surrounding the principles and practices of positive interpersonal relationships.

“Leadership is ultimately about making a difference in people’s lives. I’m proud of our students for taking total ownership of this project, and now they have the satisfaction of seeing the joy in these children’s faces and knowing they truly are making a difference,” Schager said.

Many children waited in line, eager for the chance to tell Santa what they wanted in the wake of the Camp Fire.