It started in 1980 – four years before Columbia Generating Station began its commercial operation.
And every year since then, each and every child enrolled in Head Start programs in Benton and Franklin counties has received gifts of new toys and clothing from Energy Northwest employees.
34 years. More than 11,000 children.
(The national Head Start program began in 1965 and has served more than 30 million children in that time, providing early childhood development programs serving low-income children from ages birth to five and their families.)
The committee that plans the event sends out an email to all employees looking for volunteers to “adopt” a child for the program. If you don’t respond quickly, you’ll likely lose out, the kids are adopted fast – 443 this year alone. Employees then receive a sheet with the child’s first name, school location, gift request and clothing size.
“The (EN) Head Start program has a very special place in my heart. I adopt a child every year, but last year I had the opportunity to volunteer as an elf at the Children’s Center and that is what really had an effect on me,” Jessica Hansen told me recently.
Jessica is the Chair for this year’s employee committee. As an elf, she attended several of the parties where the gifts are presented to the children, by an EN employee dressed as Santa.
“The expression on their faces when Santa walks through the door is priceless! You can truly feel the excitement in their hearts and even if they weren’t getting any presents they would still be happy just to see Santa. The experience completely changed my life and I knew I wanted to do more, so I decided to become Chair.”
As Santa could tell you, making sure all the gifts reach their intended recipients is no easy task. Energy Northwest volunteers turn one of the large meeting rooms on site into our version of the “North Pole” and stage the gifts before they are packed up for their eventual destinations. The term “some assembly required” also comes into play if a child requested a bicycle, for instance. (And because we value safety, any child who requests a bicycle, skateboard etc. will also receive a helmet.)
Throughout the organization, the program is a highlight of the holiday season, including among senior leaders. In fact, CEO Mark Reddemann and Chief Nuclear Officer Brad Sawatzke have both taken turns in the Santa chair. This week it will be Grover Hettel, vice president of Operations.
Jessica says many employees make it a family tradition. “I know I am looking forward to taking my daughter this year and letting her pick out toys for another kid who might not have as much as her. I think it teaches kids a very important lesson about life and the importance of helping others.”
A lesson that captures the spirit of the season quite well.
(Posted by John Dobken)