The Angel Tree program at Lake Central had already reached unprecedented heights when coordinator Rob Kania received a message on Facebook from Matt Knez, a Portage football player he coached there over a decade ago.
"He saw my post and wrote back that he wanted to give $200 to put us over the $14,000 mark," Kania said. "That's one of the coolest things, how this program has had that kind of impact."
In his 11th year conducting the activity, which brings Christmas joy to the less fortunate, Kania still marvels at the kindheartedness of people. All it takes, it seems, is someone to provide an initial nudge.
"It's incredible," he said. "It's amazing that it takes just one class. The kids are so competitive. They don't want to lose. They don't want to get last place. I really tried to keep my goals small because I don't want to be disappointed. I never thought this was attainable, but it just keeps going and going and going. We've been really lucky this year."
The offensive line coach at Chesterton, Kania began teaching at Lake Central last school year. When the student council adviser left in the spring, he was asked to take over, in large part for his Angel Tree efforts.
"One reason I fit in at L.C. is I'd done it and they'd done it," he said. "The great part is the project just sells itself. People are willing to help out a great cause. I give it all to the kids. We wouldn't be able to raise what we do without them."
The $14K bested last year's total by almost $10,000. The student council generated over $6,000. One class raised $1,600. A belated Wal-Mart grant added a grand to the fund. Every class blew away the base goal of $500.
"I had one kid bring in $100 one day, $200 the next, $250 the next," Kania said. "I was like, 'Where's all this money come from?' It's just insane. The secretaries wanted to know what I was doing. I told them I don't know, but I'm not going to stop either. Whatever worked, it worked across the board for every class."
Kania added to the fun by holding a $5 ugly ornament contest. His classroom has become The Island of Misfit Christmas Ornaments with over 100 hanging from the ceiling.
Amid the generosity are stories of true giving. One student talked their dad into matching funds. Another contributed a day's salary from her job. One other promised to clean her grandmother's house from top to bottom to raise money.
"I truly believe every dime, every dollar, is worth everything to everybody," Kania said.
Through church committee leader Joe Gryzbek, the school took 80 angels from Dyer United Methodist. Sixty-one were promptly claimed by L.C. staff. Student Olivia Oster gathered 16 more from St. John The Evangelist.
"That was 80 taken without even counting the $14,000," Kania said.
At $40 per child, that factors out to 350 Merry Christmases. What's left will be donated to Riley's Children's Hospital.
"That's the greatest gift of all," Kania said. "Hopefully, they'll have a Merry Christmas, too."
The shopping trip, coordinated by Morgan Calligan, is today with the items to be picked up by the Salvation Army later.
"It's a unique experience," Kania said. "It's interesting to watch people, the cashiers. They're touched by what we're doing. People are happy we're there. If we're getting in their way, they're not happy. It's a lot of kids, but if they raise the money and they want to shop, I'm not going to stop them."
Unlike Bowman Academy and Portage, Kania teaches multiple science subjects and multiple grades at Lake Central, meaning he has some students for a second year.
"At the beginning of the year, I have them introduce themselves and one of the questions is, 'What's your proudest moment?'" he said. "I had three or four say it was being a part of this project. That's just great. I love hearing from old students, how they love it. That's what this whole thing is for."
If you happen to get behind a large group of students today at the Schererville Wal-Mart, don't grumble. Take a second to stop and extend your regards. They deserve it.