Improving Jacksonville

Since 2003, on the first Friday morning in December, certain lucky school kids will arrive to find their classrooms bedecked in holiday cheer. On each desk they’ll find a backpack filled with books and toys. A special visitor will read them a story of sharing-and at just the right time St. Nicholas will appear.
For some of these children, it’s the only gift they’ll get this holiday season, for others these books will be the only new books they will own during their childhood. It’s all made possible by local and national companies partnered with the volunteer organization Hands On Jacksonville. The companies provide the funding and the volunteers, while Hands On organizes the event and brings it all together.
Hands On targets schools that have about a 75% rate of disadvantaged kids. “We can’t do every school every year,” says Judy Smith, CEO of Hands On Jacksonville, “We wish we could…but as it is every elementary school student [in these schools] will be visited by St. Nick at least once during their school career.”
Project manager Jaqui Scuncio tells us that planning for the event begins on January 1st. Hands On takes the money donated by the corporate sponsors and shops for the best deal in books, toys and backpacks. Some are bought, others are donated and some are bought at a discount. This year JaRu Toys helped out significantly by donating some of the toys the kids will getting.
Hands On Jacksonville and the corporate sponsors for A Visit from St. Nicholas make this holiday miracle happen. Some companies, such as VyStar, even have a department which deals exclusively with charity and community events. Besides monetary donations, these companies solicit their employees as volunteers. It’s their hands that stack the books and place them in the book bags during their annual Backpacking Party.
One of the many attendees of the backpacking party was Jean Noegel, a Citi Bank employee who originally signed up to read to the kids as part of the Visit From St. Nicholas. She read stories to the kids at the event for four years in a row before becoming a school liaison. She’s the contact person between a school and Hands On, helping coordinate the times the volunteers can come in to decorate, determining how many gift backpacks are needed for a school and getting St. Nicholas to each classroom.
For her the reward is in the children’s faces and hugs. “I just love children…and the kids are so much fun…they’re so happy for you to be there,” says Noegel. And, every year after the event she and the other school liaisons get together to share their experiences. “Everybody has a story that just touches you and you know just how fortunate you are,” she says.
If you’d like to get your company involved, contact Hands On Jacksonville through their website An individual can donate $25 to further the program as well. Just click A Visit from St. Nick on the left bar for info. – by erin thursby

The foundations, organizations and corporations responsible for A Visit From St. Nicholas: B.J.’s Wholesale, Baymeadows Self Storage, BB&T, Beaver Street Foundation, Brennan, Manna & Diamond P.L., Camerlengo & Brockwell P.L., Citi, Coker, Shickel, Sorenson & Posgay, Community First Credit Union, Darifair Foods, Deerwood Rotary, Deutsche Bank, Dubow Family Foundation, Ernst & Young, EverBank, FedEx, Fidelity National, First Books, FL Coastal School of Law, Florida Times Union, Intrepid Capital, J.P. Perry Insurance, Jacksonville Cornerstone Regional Development Partnership, Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police, Jacksonville Port Authority, JaRu Toys, Lender Processing Services, M.A. Healy Family Foundation, Marks Gray P.A., Medtronic, Miller Electric Company, Neviaser Family Foundation, Old Navy, PGA Tour, PSS World Medical, Publix Super Markets Charities, Regency Centers, Rogers Towers P.A., Skanska USA Building Inc.,Spohrer and Dodd P.L., Suddath, Summit Contractors, Swisher International Inc., The Hutson Companies, University of Phoenix, Vandroff Insurance Agency, Vestcor Companies, VyStar Credit Union, W.W. Gay Mechanical Contractor Inc., Walmart #1083, Walmart #1090, Walmart #6099, Witten Family Foundation.