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Secret Santas come through for youth

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The Community Action Commission of Belmont County put out a call for Secret Santas to provide Christmas gifts for youths in need of holiday cheer.

Because the community responded, close to 40 students will receive a Christmas gift this year.

“We get recommendations out of local area schools, from the guidance counselors and principals of kids who could really use assistance during Christmas, and then we shop for them. It’s children ages 13-18,” CAC Executive Director Alaire Mancz said. “We do it specifically for teenagers because a lot of the time, those are the kids that get left out of Christmas donation programs.”

The gifts will not be delivered to the schools this year, because of the coronavirus.

“Our donations are down from prior years, but then we have several donors who have given a lot of money,” she said. “We run the program strictly on donations, so without donations there wouldn’t be a program.”

Robyn and Michael Shaheen presented a $500 check Friday morning to the program.

The Shaheens have donated to the program for the past five years. Michael Shaheen, a St. Clairsville attorney, said the cause is dear to him because his mother would act as a “secret Santa” when he was young, donating winter clothing to children in need.

“We’ve been doing this for several years. The reason this type of program is so important to me is that growing up, long before there was a secret Santa program, I used to listen to my mother talk with the teachers and principal around Christmastime for the names of anyone who needed any coats, shoes, gloves. And then next thing I knew we were in the car going to the store to buy the items,” he said. “She would wrap the gifts, but she never put her name on anything, she would always donate the gifts anonymously.”

Shaheen said he appreciates all the work that the CAC does for the community.

“I appreciate that the CAC can do something so selflessly,” he said.

Shaheen said the donation was made in his mother’s honor.

Susan Stobbs, CAC director of planning and development, has been involved with the program for 20 years.

“We made a decision: Just because it was complicated did not mean that the kids were any less needy,” she said. “We made the decision to move forward.”

Stobbs said the gifts are based on the students’ interests, as recommended by school staff.

“If they are (a fan of a sports team), if they are interested in art or like to read or whatever, we try to the extent possible to get things that we know this student would really like or that would go along with whatever their interest happened to be,” she said.

“This year, we were particularly concerned,” she said. “Quite a few years ago, we started partnering with the Belmont Correctional (Institution). … For many years, they took half of the names, and (the staff) would do the shopping. Then they didn’t have enough personnel to do that, so they still would just give us the money. … That was always half of the money that we had to spend.”

Due in part to the coronavirus pandemic, the year-long fundraising effort was unable to go forward at the prison, but the Christmas spirit prevailed.

“We really weren’t expecting any help this year because we didn’t think they had it to give,” she said. “(The warden) called me the other day and said he had a check for us for $1,300, which is just a huge help.”

Warden David Gray commended the generosity of the prison staff, who raised money with “jersey days” by making a donation to wear a jersey to work. They also held events such as craft sales and silent auctions.

Other significant donors include Belmont Savings Bank, local residents, businesses and civic groups.

To donate for next year’s fund, the CAC can be reached at 740-695-0293.

Staff Writer Carri Graham contributed to this report.

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