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Braden River High School takes on Operation Santa in Lakewood Ranch

Several Braden River High clubs and organizations are working to help families in need through Operation Santa.

Fiorella Recchioni and Sarah Douglas, seniors at Braden River High School, start wrapping shoe boxes that will be put in classrooms as donation boxes.
Fiorella Recchioni and Sarah Douglas, seniors at Braden River High School, start wrapping shoe boxes that will be put in classrooms as donation boxes.
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Maureen Hudson’s classroom at Braden River High School is turning into Santa’s workshop.

Some of Hudson’s Technology Student Association students were busy wrapping shoeboxes Nov. 17 that were put in teachers’ classrooms as donation boxes to collect money for Operation Santa.

TSA members have been helping Dolly Johnson, a Myakka City resident who began Operation Santa with her husband, Gary, for the past four years. 

This year, the TSA members are working with different organizations throughout the school, including the girls basketball team, the cheerleading squad and National Honor Society, to ensure Operation Santa continues because Johnson is unable to lead the effort this year. She was diagnosed with leukemia in August.

“We’re kind of excited and a little scared at the same time because I’m afraid that we’re not going to be able to hold the torch to what (Johnson) did,” Hudson said. “We’ll do our best. If we don’t impact as many families, at least we’re trying to carry that forward for her.”

Johnson said she is grateful Braden River High School is taking over for her.

“They’re just amazing, and I am so blessed that they have stepped up to the place,” she said. “Honestly, I was heartbroken when I realized there’s no way I could do it. When Maureen contacted me and said she and the school wanted to take it over, it was an answer to a prayer.”

Operation Santa helps families in need in the greater Lakewood Ranch area. Families apply to be a part of the project and provide their wants and needs. The students then will work together to get monetary donations as well as collect donated clothing, toys, food and more to be able to give each member of the family something they want and something they need along with a Christmas meal for the family.

The school is hoping to help 50-60 families this year.

Johnson said it’s important to continue Operation Santa because so many families continue to be impacted by the pandemic.

“A lot of families wouldn’t have Christmas if it wasn’t for somebody stepping up and moving forward with this,” she said.

TSA members are collecting donations and working with the Lakewood Ranch Elks to get toys. The girls basketball team also is collecting donations. The cheer team is helping with distribution and wrapping. National Honor Society students are donating the proceeds from their classroom door decorating project.

“(Operation Santa) started as a TSA thing, but now it’s turned into more of a pirate family project,” Hudson said.

Hudson said it was a relief to see other school organizations wanting to help with Operation Santa because TSA had never had to take on the project from the start. Johnson would accept applications from families in the community, connect with them and work with other community organizations to get food and toys donated. Now all that falls on Hudson and TSA members.

“I love that we could take something that we’ve had a little piece of and say yes to the big picture,” said Bella Pasquale, the president of the school’s TSA chapter. “I love that we can help someone that’s done so much to help other people.”

Hudson and her students enjoy being able to see the direct impact they’ll have on the community. They will get to know the families through the application process and meet them on distribution day when the families come to pick up their presents and meals Dec. 22 at the school.

“It’s one thing to wrap gifts and hand them to an organization knowing that it’s going to go to a family,” Hudson said. “It’s another thing to see the family. That for these kids is special. There are very few things you can do that you completely see the impact from my dollar all the way to where it goes.”

Pasquale recalled the excitement of wrapping all the gifts the night before distribution day in 2019.

“We were here at like 8 p.m., and we had four of our administrators down in these rooms all filled with gifts,” Pasquale said. “We saw kids in every room wrapping and then administrators wrapping with us. It just brought everyone together.”

Cristina Ramirez, a senior, said wrapping day is “organized chaos” with Christmas music playing in the background as people wrap as fast as they can.

One of the challenges Johnson had with Operation Santa was being able to communicate with Spanish-speaking families, so Hudson recruited some of her bilingual students to help on distribution day.

Ramirez said she looks forward to being able to help families communicate with volunteers to address needs and share families’ gratitude.

“There’s so many people who speak two languages,” Ramirez said. “I can speak another language and make a difference. It can be the difference between a family getting presents or not getting presents because of a language barrier.”


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