There are many things to celebrate as 2021 comes to a close, but for the staff and students at New Jersey’s eight county special services school districts, being together tops the list. With many of the holiday traditions put on hold last year, everyone is excited to celebrate together this year with safety precautions in place.

Members of the South Shore Stitchers Guild stand with the stacks of blankets they made especially for students at Atlantic County Special Services School District.

Santa returned to Atlantic County Special Services School District (ACSSSD) this year, much to the delight of staff and students.  A group of local “elves” helped make his visit extra special.  The South Shore Stitchers Guild, a group of local quilters, delivered beautiful quilts made for preschoolers and those with severe cognitive disabilities. The quilters also worked with school therapists to make sensory blankets for students, which combine different colors, textures, and materials.

“It was so special to see the children light up when visiting Santa,” said Dr. Kerri McGinley, ACSSSD assistant superintendent. “The only things more special were the quilts. So much love and thought went into each one…they are even personalized to include each student’s name.  We are so thankful to have a community that loves our students as much as we do.”

An Atlantic County Special Services School District holds Santa's hand as he looks at her, with a present in his other hand. Frosty the Snowman watches while smiling behind them.

An Atlantic County Special Services School District student holds Santa’s hand as he looks at her, with a present in his other hand. Frosty the Snowman watches while smiling behind them.

Santa also was the centerpiece of another special celebration at Bergen County Special Services School District’s Union Street School, which educates students who are deaf and hard of hearing in grades pre-k through four. Santa’s special “elf” for this visit was an interpreter who made sure the children could easily communicate with the big man.  This year, each small class visited Santa in the cafeteria so there was plenty of space to spread out, for safety’s sake.  All 26 students also received a gift, thanks to a parent’s fundraising effort.

“We didn’t get to see Santa last year, so while things were a little different this year, we were all just so happy to have him here,” said Lisa Stewart, supervisor of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Programs for BCSSSD.

Union Street students started their holiday celebrations on Dec. 1, and focused on learning about all the holidays in December, like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and even Letter Writing Day.  There’s also an elf, Comet, who has popped up in a different place every morning, doing something “off the wall.” Staff members have built vocabulary lessons around Comet’s hijinks.

“Just like the English language, American Sign Language has different signs for the same word, which has different meanings,” explained Stewart.  “We spent the mornings working on words to describe what Comet was doing, where Comet was found, and then worked on that vocabulary.  Students learn through repetition, so we are constantly incorporating language and finding ways to make them understand through oral input, signs, gestures, and visuals.”


Staff members smile behind a table of goodies made by students at Burlington County Special Services School District for their annual craft fair.

Burlington County Special Services School District found many ways to spread cheer and goodwill this season. The district’s annual holiday craft fair included items made by students in the career and technical education shops. Seasonal treasures like wooden snowflakes, evergreen centerpieces, and yummy baked goods were just a few of the items available for purchase. Shoppers could find beautiful items for their homes or to gift while supporting the students.

Students across the district also worked to give back to their community this holiday season.  After a successful food drive, students at the Westampton Campus – South Wing decorated boxes for distributing the donated items to those in need. Students also collected dozens of stuffed animals and created more than 100 handmade cards to be delivered to a local nursing home.

And, despite downsizing the annual holiday show and moving it into a virtual format, the show did, indeed, go on. Students performed skits for their peers, showing off their skills and providing uplifting entertainment.  In addition to their own holiday show, BCSSSD Pioneer Marching Band and Cheer Team also performed in the annual Moorestown Holiday Parade.

“It was so great to return to some of our beloved traditions here in Burlington County,” said Dr. Chris Nagy, superintendent. “The excitement of the kids is contagious, and what’s even more inspiring, is to see them so engaged in helping others.  This is an example as to why I refer to this district as a place where miracles are realized.”

A Burlington County Special Services School District student wearing an elf hat loads a box up with food collected by the school to be distributed to those in need.

The spirit of “it’s better to give than to receive” was also alive this holiday season at the Cape May County Special Services School District (CMCSSSD). CMCSSSD staff members collaborated with various community organizations and sponsors to assist community members in need, including students and their families. This annual period of giving back supports 50 families every year within the district through collections of toys, food, gift cards to the district’s food pantry, and other gifts.

“This is one of our favorite activities to be involved in as a school community,” said Nicholas Bailey, CMCSSSD assistant principal. “It is absolutely wonderful to see everything come together, and the smiles on the faces of the families are priceless. We appreciate the support of everyone involved and cannot thank them enough for all that they do for our school district and families.”

Efforts started in November at CMCSSSD with a holiday food drive for Thanksgiving. Students created holiday food baskets featuring all the classic items included in a holiday meal, like turkey or ham and all the fixings.

“Everyone helps to make this program possible, and we are extremely grateful, especially to big donors like the Elks, who always help out during the holidays,” added Bailey.

“This is the season to celebrate our sense of community at county special services school districts, and it’s so wonderful to see the return of so many beloved traditions in a safe and responsible manner,” said Dr. Howard Lerner, chairman of the Joint Council and superintendent of Bergen County Special Services School District. “We hope each and every student and staff member had a joyous and memorable start to this holiday season.”