Every year at Sehome High School, students and staff participate in a schoolwide program called Bring Joy to a Child. Every Harbor class (a study hall/homeroom period) receives a sheet of paper with a description of an elementary school student who has been identified as being in need, along with gifts that they would want, what clothing size they wear and some family needs (like new tires). As a group, the students read the sheet and then decide which of those items they would like to purchase for the child. Then, over the course of the next few weeks, the high school students bring in donations to their respective Harbor classes in preparation for shopping at Fred Meyer. This year, the shopping was organized so that there would be two student representatives from each class.
As one might expect, for a program that encompasses all the students in a school, there is a lot of planning required. For Bring Joy to a Child, the responsibility for this falls on Kevin Johnson (or KJ), a social studies teacher and the former Dean of Students at Sehome, who co-coordinates the program with fellow history teacher Kim Kirk.
“Really, every year, it’s the students that tell me what to do,” KJ said. “It’s not me telling them.” The students often are the ones organizing the assemblies, as well as bringing the donations to the trucks and unloading them at the different schools. “That was all student driven, student directed and student led,” KJ said.
KJ is the perfect person for the job, having been involved with Bring Joy to a Child from nearly the very beginning. As a freshman at Sehome, he was part of the second group to ever participate in the program. “I think I might’ve been in the first group that was schoolwide, where every class got a student,” he said. “Before, it had just been in a couple classrooms.”
He explained that when the program first started, it really helped him grow as a person. “It did a good job helping me understand that not everything is always about me,” he said. “I’m an only child, so things can very easily be about me, so that was nice to have something structured at school that helped me think about some other people.”
The program made such an impact on him during this time that it rippled throughout his life. After graduating, he recalls feeling like something was missing during the wintertime. “My really big eye opener was my first year out of college,” he remembered. “I was going through the mall, and I was just Christmas shopping. I saw the angel tree from the Salvation Army and I grabbed one and I went and shopped for it. I told a couple of my friends about it and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, we don’t have Bring Joy to a Child this year. We’re out of school, that’s right!’ So then all of a sudden they started doing it and I wonder if we would’ve done that if we had not gone to Sehome.”
KJ has found that many student coordinators have also felt the same about the program and decided to start it up at their colleges when they leave high school. Currently, he says that there are similar programs at BYU, Miami, Ohio University and the University of Arizona.
Through KJ, the spirit of Bring Joy to a Child has even been extended to another generation. KJ’s daughters, a second grader and a seventh grader, have the same understanding of the importance of it as their father. Both girls have donated many of their personal toys and clothes to the Grab and Go (an assortment of donated items that any Harbor classes can pull from) that’s housed in KJ’s classroom. “My family understands all parts of it,” he said. “They’ve shopped for kids before, they’ve been in the assembly before, they’ve helped me organize the Grab and Go, they see the forms, I mean, they’re a part of it.”
He also believes that this program provides many lessons the high schoolers can learn and grow from, like he did. “It’s really easy as a high school student to be wrapped up in yourself,” he explained. “Everyone was at some point when they were in high school, so it’s not a fault, it’s just something that eventually you grow into and I hope that’s an opportunity for them to grow, to start thinking about budgeting, to start thinking about how you help people in need when they ask for it.”
However, over the years, the program has been through many changes both popular and unpopular. The hope is for the program to remain at Sehome despite the changing demographics and schedule, and both KJ and the students believe that this is the way to go. “It was pretty clear this year when we talked to a lot of staff members that said, ‘We need to figure out a way to do this. It’s meaningful for our students and it’s meaningful for us,’” KJ said. “I’m always going to honor that and give 100 percent of what I have to do that.”
Above all, the program is about providing for those in the community who need it most. “I think no matter what shape or what form it takes, we’re helping people that are in need in our community,” said KJ. “I think ultimately the most important piece every year is that someone is healthier and better and safer because we did this, so I like to settle in on that.”