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South Butler Santas learn to stretch dollars while helping needy

| Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
From left, Knoch High School student and South Butler Santas participants Mikayla Spreng, Julie Zilka and Erica Robbins compare the price of winter hats as they shop for needy families at the Target in Cranberry on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013.
Knoch High School student and South Butler Santas Katie Gannon, 17, left, and Kiley Hajek, 17, shopped recently at the Target department store in Cranberry Township. The group shopped for needy families. Photo taken Dec. 6, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Knoch High School student and South Butler Santas participant Brittney Barnett looks over a winter jacket as she shops for a needy family at the Target in Cranberry on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Knoch High School student and South Butler Santas participant Deanna Rippey browses rows of gloves as she shops for a needy family at the Target in Cranberry on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Knoch High School student and South Butler Santas participant Savanna Steffen shops for a needy family at the Target in Cranberry on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013.

Knoch High School juniors Kiley Hajek and Katie Gannon looked perplexed as they stood near a display of boys dress pants in the Target store in Cranberry Township.

“I really don't know,” Hajek said to her friend on a recent Friday as they tried to decide whether the pants would make it into their shopping cart.

Neither of them has experience buying kids' clothing. But as part of the South Butler Santas, they were tasked with shopping for boys ages 4, 13 and 17.

They were with 19 other girls in Knoch's Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) club shopping for the families who are beneficiaries of the district's South Butler Santas program.

The program accepts referrals of poor families in the district, then contacts the families to see if they want to participate.

They get a list of things the family needs, especially the kids, like clothing or shoes; as well as extras such as an iTunes gift card or cosmetics.

The beneficiaries remain anonymous. The shoppers choose items based on age and gender.

“I think it's a unique opportunity to do something that's impacting families in our own community,” said Hajek, 17, who has participated for three years.

“This is the thing that every­one talks about,” Gannon said. “So far, I'm having a lot of fun.”

As the student shoppers browsed, they took care to deliberate on what colors the kids they were shopping for might like and took time to put together matching outfits.

They price-checked each item to try to get the most for their money.

“I always like doing community work, and it's nice I can do it through the school,” said senior Celina Sanks, 17. “Especially around the holidays, it's nice to know I can help families.”

Started 30 years ago

South Butler Santas began 30 years ago as a home economics class project that benefited one family, said Lisa Knappenberger, South Butler Santas coordinator and high school gym teacher.

The project continued through the years and, as it grew to help more and more families, it eventually became a nonprofit organization.

“There were times when we were helping 75 kids,” Knappenberger said. “We don't do that many anymore just because things have gotten so expensive.”

The group spent about $6,200 on presents for 48 children in 22 families this year. Each child received between $100 and $150 worth of items, depending on age group.

Nearly every year since Knappenberger began overseeing the program, members have shopped at the Cranberry Target, which gives them a 10 percent discount. The students wrapped all the gifts that same day and Knappenberger delivered them early last week.

Senior Sarah Brasili, 18, president of the FCCLA club for three years, said the shopping trip is her favorite thing the club does all year.

“I love being able to help (the families) out,” she said. “They deserve it. Half the time, I want to get them more.”

Important lessons

Knappenberger said participating in South Butler Santas is an academic lesson in economics and a social lesson in the importance of compassion and service.

“I think for many of them they realize that they don't have it so bad,” Knappenberger said. “Some of the families say, ‘He didn't get anything new for school,' and I ask the kids if they can imagine that, because I don't think they really can.”

She said it's a reminder for her, too, about what's really important.

“We all get caught up in saying, ‘I want a new this or that,' ” she said. “It's a reminder of how fortunate we are, and it's not about the things that we have.”

Miranda McCune, 17, a senior, said each year the shopping trip makes an impact on her.

“It reminds me how truly blessed I am,” she said. “It makes me feel good to help these families and these kids at Christmas.”

More than the holidays

Despite their name, the South Butler Santas are active all year.

For example, if a teacher notices a student doesn't have what he or she needs for class, the teacher will reach out to South Butler Santas for help.

The group recently bought a cosmetology kit for a student who needed it for the course, Knappenberger said.

They also helped out with the cost for some seventh- and eighth-graders who couldn't afford to go on the middle school's annual trip to Gettys­burg or Washington, D.C.

The group also helps in more personal ways.

“If we hear of a death of a parent, we immediately write a check — and it's a sizable amount — and send it to the family,” Knappenberger said. “We do that right away, before insurance monies are able to kick in.”

Or if a staff member's spouse is hospitalized and the employee is taking off work to be with him or her, the South Butler Santas will send them money to help with the cost of gas or parking, she said.

The group raises money year round, Knappenberger said.

South Butler Santas will be collecting at the Christmas choral concerts this week.

They get donations from alumni, retired teachers and local churches, she said.

This year, the Football Boosters donated the proceeds from one of its 50-50 raffles. South Butler Santas also has fundraisers like the Homecoming carnival and faculty dress-down days for a $3 donation.

“Somehow, it manages to take care of itself,” Knappenberger said.

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or

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