A day-long Christmas celebration filled hearts big and small at Southwest Early Childhood Center on Wednesday.
The annual Santa Day brought presents, crafts and songs to more than 200 students.
For nine years, George and Gayleen Ousley have brought the Christmas holiday experience to more than 1,250 preschoolers at the center.
“I do believe that it’s the true meaning of Christmas to give,” George said. “The saying goes, ‘You’ve been given much, much is expected.’ Gayleen and I have been lucky in life and been fortunate. God has shined on us, and we really enjoy sharing this day with these kids down here.”
What started as a journey to help Jefferson City teachers in 2009 led the Ousleys to the center. After learning the teachers, students and parents work together to provide good experiences to low-income and special needs students, they were sold.
“(I didn’t) just want to write a check to the school district,” George said. “I want(ed) to do something that will affect the kids directly.”
The day has grown to be a community effort including music, crafts, photos with Santa, cookie-decorating and books.
More than a dozen volunteers dress in holiday attire, and they help the students make crafts. George in a red blazer with Christmas trees and Gayleen in a reindeer sweater supervise with bright smiles.
“There’s so much happiness and cheer all around,” George said. “Ain’t no sadness here today.”
It’s all about impacting the students and getting new stories to tell each year, Gayleen said.
“My favorite part is seeing the kids and how excited they get,” she added.
Local musicians — including Jefferson City School District Superintendent Larry Linthacum — keep the students engaged, singing holiday songs such as “Feliz Navidad” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” before they sit with Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Students tell Santa what they want for Christmas and receive a gift donated by the Ousleys.
For years, Bert Johnson has traveled from Kirks-ville to serve as Santa. He comes to enjoy the experience with the students, he said.
Ayahni Campbell, 5, filled her decorated ornament Wednesday with her school picture and covered it with stickers. Before she went to see Santa, she knew she would ask for a Barbie dollhouse.
Retired JC Schools teacher Susie Jones enjoys acting as Mrs. Claus every year.
“It’s my favorite day of the year,” Jones said. “I taught kindergarten for 30 years, and this is such a treat to be back with the children.”
Mrs. Claus talks to the students and gives them each a hat hand-knitted by Jefferson City resident Lena Crawford.
Organizer Brenda Hatfield has been involved with the activities since the beginning. Part of her job is making sure each child gets one minute with Santa.
The school provides students with many experiences they wouldn’t get anywhere else, she said.
“Santa Day is the greatest day of the year,” Hatfield said. “But you must remember to wear washable clothes — because at Southwest, love is always sticky, and there’s always lots of love.”
The event is part of the Ousleys’ giving through the Jefferson City Public Schools Foundation. Twice a year, the couple donates a certificate for dinner and a movie to a random Southwest Early Childhood Center employee. Next year, the Ousleys will get back to their goal of helping teachers with the Southwest Teacher of the Year award.