HomeFront families and Pennington School gather for annual holiday party

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There were smiles all around as HomeFront families were treated to a holiday party and lots of cheer by students and staff at the Pennington School last weekend.

For few hours on Dec. 15, the families, many of them homeless or barely earning enough money to make ends meet, could share in the holiday spirit with the students at the co-educational boarding school in Pennington.

The Pennington School and HomeFront, a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless and the working poor, have teamed up for many years to hold a holiday party for the Lawrence Township-based group’s clients.

In one corner of Sparks Gymnasium there was a pretty good bingo game going for the adults. On the other side of the gym, there was a book nook for children. They could look through books and take one home with them.

In the middle of the gym, children could engage in arts and crafts projects. A DJ kept the party hopping, as HomeFront children and the Pennington School students danced to the music. Nearby, students were serving a festive meal to HomeFront families.

But backstage was where the real fun was to be had for the children, who met a special visitor – Santa Claus, who was ready to listen as they gave him their Christmas wish lists. Some children asked for gifts for themselves and others asked for gifts for their parents.

“Which knee do you want to sit on, this one or that one?” Santa Claus asked a young girl.

She hopped up on Santa’s left knee and whispered in his ear that she wanted to give her mom some earrings for Christmas.

The little girl made her Christmas wish for her mother come true. She was escorted to Santa’s Workshop, which was filled with gifts for adults – from scarves and pocketbooks to fleece blankets and jewelry. Grinning from ear to ear at her find, she selected a pair of earrings for her mother.

Parents were able to choose gifts for their children in Santa’s Toy Shop. There were games, stuffed animals, crayons and assorted toys. There was a rack of new clothing – everything from winter coats to slippers – in children’s sizes.

All of the gifts were donated by the Pennington School students and their families, some of whom helped to wrap the presents.

This year marks the 25th annual holiday party collaboration between HomeFront and the Pennington School. HomeFront had been set to hold its first holiday party at another venue, but at the last minute the host institution canceled the event.

That’s when Connie Mercer, HomeFront’s executive director, reached out to Thomas Liwosz, who was the dean of students at the Pennington School. He quickly agreed to host the holiday celebration, which was a much smaller event at that time.

“We pulled it together in two weeks,” Liwosz recalled. “We have gotten much more out of this than HomeFront has. I have seen my students, big, teenage boys, carrying babies in their arms. It pulls them out of their comfort zone. It’s a good way to start the holiday season.”

The holiday party has grown over the years, said William Hawkey, the headmaster of the Pennington School. The party started out as a luncheon, but now it has expanded to become a family holiday celebration.

“(The holiday party) is the kind of thing, from the community’s point of view, where everyone has an opportunity to get involved, and they do,” Hawkey said.

Students, parents, teachers, staff and trustees have all become involved in party preparations.

“It is part of the culture of the school and it is fundamental to the students’ experiences at the school. There is an understanding about ‘giving back’ to the community. It is coming from the right place,” Hawkey said, adding that unlike many schools, the Pennington School does not require students to undertake community service.

Preparing for the holiday party begins in the fall, when students in the Peer Leadership Program visit HomeFront so they can become familiar with HomeFront’s mission, Hawkey said. It is also learning about a community that needs help, he said.

Erin O’Connell, one of the two Peer Leadership Program advisers, said about 160 students, not all of them in the Peer Leadership Program, volunteered to take part in the holiday celebration. The toy drive was started by the Peer Leadership Program participants.

“If we are having guests come into our home, why shouldn’t they go home with something?” O’Connell said.

At first, that meant toys. But this year, it has been expanded to include books, so that anyone who wants to take a book home can do so.

The holiday party is a time for everyone to play and read and color pictures together, she said, adding that “everyone has a name. We are inviting our neighbors into our home. There can be real conversation between the students and their HomeFront guests.”