SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah students sacrificed valuable pre-finals week study time to wrap Christmas presents for local refugee families. But for some, focusing on others rather than school actually helped to relieve their stress.
About 30 students volunteering through the U.'s Lowell Bennion Community Service Center wrapped hundreds of gifts Friday afternoon at the Catholic Community Services Sharehouse for the charity's annual Gift of the Drummer project.
"I just love that these students are here," said Eric Nehm, the student programs coordinator at the Bennion Center. "They should be studying for finals, but they're not — they're here wrapping presents for children. And that's just very wholesome, and it represents the spirit of the Bennion Center."
Carly Shields, a senior who has participated in the gift wrapping service activity twice before, finds it relaxing to get out into the community and do something to take a break from studying. She also is happy to know she's making a difference in a child's life.
"I remember how fun it was to come down on Christmas morning and see really nicely wrapped presents," she said. "We get to do that thing for them, which I think is really cool."
Melissa Manzano, a first-year transfer student studying social work, also enjoyed taking a break to give back to the community.
"For me as someone who wants to become a social worker," she said, "I think it's a great opportunity to give back to the refugee families who might be struggling during this time, this holiday season."
Students from the Bennion Center have volunteered annually for several years, said Janet Healy, who works in community relations for Catholic Community Services and is this year's Gift of the Drummer coordinator.
Student athletes from the U. were at the storehouse wrapping on Thursday, and Judge Memorial High School students will also help in the coming weeks, Healy said.
Regular Gift of the Drummer volunteers said the it's like Sub for Santa, but specifically for refugee children — donors choose a child in need to sponsor, then shop for them based on a list of needs and wants, along with information about their age, gender, sizes and interests. The kids who receive gifts are in families enrolled in the refugee resettlement program or are unaccompanied minors in refugee foster care. Ages range from infants to 18 years old.
Inside the Sharehouse, donated gifts for each child were organized in individual, labeled plastic bags to be wrapped and re-packed. Case managers for each child or family will later come to collect the bags and deliver them.
While donors and volunteers of many charities get to see the recipients' faces light up with gratitude, those with Gift of the Drummer don't get to experience that.
"These donors don't get to do the delivery, which is the fun part," said Heidi Christensen, a volunteer and last year's project coordinator. "They go out and do the hard part. They go out and shop and select for these kids … and they're really so generous."
As the students busily wrapped gifts, Daniel Seelos brought by bags full of gifts for 15 kids, purchased and donated by his fellow employees at Durham Jones & Pinegar law firm.
"We always watch for opportunities in the community that are going to directly benefit the communities which we live in," Seelos said, "and with the refugee situation happening, we thought this would be the perfect place to come and make those donations."
Seelos and his family shopped for some of the children themselves, which he said was humbling.
"The main thing they want is winter clothes," he said. "You want to do more, because they're not asking for much. They're just asking to be warm."
Healy said their donations come from many companies, churches, groups and individuals who are always excited to help.
Last year, Gift of the Drummer helped 570 children, while this year there will be 315. The amount of new families and individuals that the charity's refugee program has helped this year has gone down significantly as well, Healy said, pointing to refugee policies set by the Trump administration.
Still, even last year, Christensen said they had no problem filling all the needed donations.
"We have the same donors do it again and again every year," Christensen said. "It's a part of their tradition. They get their kids involved, they come in and they really care about what they're selecting kids that they've never met, and never will meet."