Anthony Struffolino remembers the homeless gentleman he met last year while volunteering at the Cherry Street Mission during the holiday season. Anthony, 14, doesn't recall the man's name, but his story is deeply etched in the teenager's memory.
The man wasn't eating the soup that was being served that day, so Anthony sat down with him and asked him what was wrong.
"He just started crying," Anthony recalled.
It was the anniversary of the death of the man's wife. He had been a foster child and all the other members of his family had also died. He had no one.
"I felt bad for him and started to cry myself," Anthony said.
So when Millie Alvarez, an eighth-grade teacher at McTigue Middle School, asked her students to write a letter to Santa as an exercise to teach the state standard of properly writing a business letter, the memory of the homeless man came to mind for Anthony.
The assignment: Write a letter asking Santa to fulfill a wish for someone other than yourself, one that doesn't cost money.
"I wish that Santa brings him happiness because he really needs it," Anthony said.
Part of Ms. Alvarez's motivation for the letters to Santa is linked to the charitable marketing outreach by Macy's retail chain, which promises to donate $1 million to the Make-A-Wish Foundation - that is $1 for every letter to Santa, up to 1 million.
Ms. Alvarez figured writing letters in business form would be kind of "dry" for the students, so she was looking for a way to spice it up a bit.
With the connection to the charitable cause, Ms. Alvarez is still able to teach the proper form of writing business letters - while encouraging her students to think outside of themselves.
The students, who are mostly in their middle teens, are able to participate in the giving spirit of the holiday season.
Michelle Blue, 13, said she wants peace for everyone because "we are at war" and "even though we do have a black President-elect, there is still racism ," she said.
Taliyah Jones, also 13, is wishing for the gift of health for her baby cousin, who was born with lung problems and for the first month of life has been connected to tubes and machines to help her breathe.
Craig Cummings, the customer relations coordinator with the U.S. Postal Service in Toledo, said even before he learned of Ms. Alvarez's assignment, he has noticed a slight uptick in the number of letters children are writing to Santa that express concern for others.
Unofficially for the past 10 years, Mr. Cummings has been sort of Santa's local secretary, handling the letters addressed to Jolly Ol' St. Nick.
"We do deliver all the mail to Santa," Mr. Cummings said. "We need to make sure that Santa is seeing these too."
So far this season, Mr. Cummings said he has received between 300 and 400 letters to Santa.
To help her students with the project, Ms. Alvarez has been taking her students through the writing process: brainstorm, prewrite, draft, revise, and edit.
"My focus is that I help them score the 30 points for fully developing their idea," Ms. Alvarez said.
She even has provided her students with a list of suggestions for transitions.
The students are being asked to have at least four paragraphs in their letter - an introduction, one that explains how the person came to need the gift, another to explain how the gift will help his or her situation, and a conclusion.
"In the conclusion, since you are the one writing the wish it will be your time to enter the letter; why you want it," Ms. Alvarez instructed the students in her first-period class. "You can get personal in your conclusion. That's that reflection part."
Through the personal part, Ms. Alvarez is also learning more about her students, things that otherwise she might not know. Such as the student who is wishing that her mom would get a better job so the bank doesn't foreclose on their house.
The students have to turn in two copies of their letters, one for a grade, the other to put in an envelope and send to Santa. Many of the students will meet after school on Dec. 19 - the last day before the holiday break - and deliver their letters to the local Macy's store in Westfield Franklin Park.
After a brief consultation with Ms. Alvarez in her first-period English class yesterday, Anthony took her suggestion to better explain how his wish would impact the homeless man's life, that is, if he wanted the best grade possible.
"She is a really hard grader. She is just on [us about] everything; transitions, commas," Anthony said. "I mean, I'm thankful for it, but I wasn't ready."
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