Nearly a decade ago, Anita Benfield, then a secretary in the guidance office at Rock Hill High School, bought what she thought was a simple Christmas present for a student in need, thanks to a donation from Rack Room Shoes.
When the girl put on those black Converse sneakers, she cried, looked up at Benfield and said, “I can move my toes.”
“I knew right then that there was clearly a need that was not being met,” Benfield said in her office on Thursday.
Every year since then, Benfield, who is now the school’s registrar, has made it her mission to help as many students as possible during the holiday season.
Through a yearly donation from Rack Room Shoes and the generosity of Rock Hill High staff members, along with the St. Vincent de Paul Giving Tree at St. Anne Catholic Church, Benfield and her helpers were able to purchase gifts for 38 children. The majority of them are Rock Hill High students, but some are siblings of those students.
Each year, guidance counselors and teachers identify families that might need assistance during the holidays, and some parents call in to request help, Benfield said.
Then, the week before Thanksgiving, Rock Hill High staff members hold a silent auction, where donated items are purchased by teachers to help raise money to purchase gifts for those students.
“It’s overwhelming,” Benfield said of the financial support from teachers and staff members. “They know exactly where that money is going.”
This year, the silent auction alone raised $1,800.
After the money was raised, Benfield, along with the help of a few staff members and the Teacher Cadets, a class of seniors who want to study education in college, went shopping. Each student receiving gifts gets clothing, a pair of shoes and one “fun item,” like a basketball, perfume or books, depending on their interests.
The cadets spent time carefully picking out the items for each student, taking care not to spend any more than their budgeted amount.
“It was a very humbling lesson for a lot of (the cadets),” Benfield said.
After school, the teacher cadets met again to wrap each present. Parentspick up the gifts at the school.
One of the best parts, though, Benfield said, is that the gifts aren’t labeled in any way that shows they’re from the high school and, unless the family tells them, the students don’t have any idea where the gifts came from. As far as they know, their family purchased them.
“And that’s what they want to see, that it came from their family,” she said.
Teacher cadet Heather Russell said she had a lot of fun picking out items for her child, who is a younger sibling of a Rock Hill High student. She picked out clothes and shoes and a puppy play set.
“I want to know what her reaction is going to be,” Russell said. “It makes my heart happy.”
It’s not surprising that the entire Rock Hill High School community would try to help students in need, said administrative assistant Megan Cudd, who was helping the teacher cadets with wrapping the gifts.
“It ties back to Bearcat Pride,” Cudd said. “It’s about participating in this community.”
If the high school didn’t try to help its students during the holiday season, no other community agency would, Benfield said.
High school students, most of whom are 14 years old or older, don’t qualify for most “Angel Trees” or projects such as Holiday Partners, the joint effort between the United Way of York County, WRHI’s Toys for Happiness and The Herald’s Empty Stocking Fund. But their age shouldn’t mean they don’t have presents under the tree, Benfield said.
“It’s almost like the high school kids fall through the cracks,” she said. “They’re still kids.”