‘Outpouring of support’: Local elementary pupils play Santa, stuff stockings for troops

Ryan Doby took being Santa seriously.

In the Park Forest Elementary School music room Tuesday, the second-grader carefully filled a snowman stocking with various goodies. From one box he plucked a deck of cards, from another a puzzle. More boxes yielded lip balm, ramen noodles, cocoa packets, crackers and candy canes.

When his stocking could bulge no more, his concentration dissolved into a smile. He handed his lumpy bundle to Tech Sgt. Michelle Wamboldt.

“Oh, we’ve got a big one,” she said.

Dressed in uniform, Wamboldt was visiting from the local Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 112th Air Operations Squadron for a special day at the school.

Wamboldt and two other squadron members, Master Sgt. William Burns and Maj. Tracie Hough, joined teachers, students and volunteers in stuffing stockings for military personnel serving overseas.

Military Families Ministry, a support group based in Centre and Blair counties, organized the “Stockings for Troops” effort. The group will mail the stockings to service members in time for Christmas.

Ryan’s stocking was one of 500 filled during Park Forest’s first partnership with Military Families Ministry. For the past three years, the group has directed similar all-school events at Myers Elementary School in Bellwood and St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg.

Park Forest music teacher Patti Begg said the ministry’s past stocking stuffings inspired her school to hold its own.

“I love the idea that each child takes part in it,” said Begg, a co-organizer of Tuesday’s event.

Though Park Forest students did the actual stocking stuffing, taking turns walking in single file around a square of open boxes, many hands made the gifts possible.

Members of Centre Pieces, a local quilt guild, sewed more than 300 stockings for the cause. The rest were made by parents or donated by businesses.

Local American Legion posts 245 and 779, and the State College Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 321, contributed more than $3,000, mainly for shipping expenses.

“We pulled this off in two weeks with an outpouring of support from the community, our faculty and the kids,” Park Forest Principal Donnan Stoicovy said.

“Everybody has worked hard to make this successful. And it’s going to warm a lot of hearts.”

Wamboldt can guarantee it.

She spent last Christmas on Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. It was shaping up to be a melancholy holiday until she went to the post office one day.

One package contained holiday cards and gifts from Harrisburg schoolchildren for her unit. The cards ended up brightening more than barracks walls.

“This stuff is absolutely amazing,” she said, gesturing at the nearby boxes of candy, snacks and personal items such as toothbrushes.

“Being away from friends and family is bad,” Wamboldt said, “but to get this support, words can’t describe how good it feels.”

She’s sure the stockings themselves will bring festive smiles.

“Not only are the goodies going to be used, but the stockings are going to be hung all over,” she said.

Park Forest’s stockings will be sent to Afghanistan, Kuwait, a few Navy ships and an Air Force base in Djibouti, destinations Military Families Ministry helped arrange through military chaplains.

First-grader Broderick Peasley knows exactly where his stocking is going.

“All right, sweetie, we’re going to give this to your brother,” ministry co-founder Tracie Ciambotti told him.

Bryce Peasley is an Army soldier in Afghanistan. Next month, his tour will become much sweeter.

“He’s going to get a lot of candy,” Broderick said.

Ciambotti, of Bellwood, also knows someone in store for a merrier Christmas.

Her son, Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Nearhoof, will receive a stocking in Kuwait during his fourth deployment. So will many soldiers in his company — a little bit of holiday cheer to ease the pain of being away from their families.

“It is really tough,” Ciambotti said. “We get such amazing feedback.”

One letter last year stands as her favorite. It came from a group of Navy SEALs. They were hunkered down on a remote, forlorn patch of Afghanistan desert, prepared to spend Christmas with field rations and little else.

Then a helicopter buzzed in, dropping supplies by parachute. Down floated turkey, ham, gravy, potatoes and all the trimmings, to be cooked over an open fire.

Another crate drifted to the ground, this one packed with stockings just like the ones Park Forest students prepared.

The SEALs let Ciambotti know much they loved that Christmas made it all the way to their distant corner.

“To me that’s what keeps us doing this year after year,” she said.

Park Forest fifth-grader Anna Conklin stuffed a stocking Tuesday and also helped kindergarteners make theirs. She was dazzled by the array of items assembled for the day.

“I think this is really cool,” she said. “A lot of people who need stockings and who need cheering up in the Army and Navy will get a happy bag all tied for them.”

Begg was already in a holiday mood. She surveyed her bustling music room and beamed.

“I’m just so impressed,” she said. “It makes my heart sing that the community has helped. It’s humbling.”