The idea came to Gina Antonucci in 2019 while at a country club holiday party, watching the children visit with Santa, and enjoying gifts and beautiful displays of food. She thought of how many children would not have the same experience. But, she thought, she could do something.
Gina, a float nurse at Akron Children’s Mahoning Valley, decided to “adopt” a class at Southside Academy in Youngstown and be Santa Claus to 16 kindergarteners. She enlisted the help of friend, Ashley Milligan Smith, also a nurse, and together they bought personalized gifts for each student based on the teacher’s advice, wrapped them and delivered them overnight. A tree was set up, the classroom was decorated, stockings filled and hung. The students would be greeted by a hand-drawn picture and message: “Merry Christmas. Santa was here! Ho Ho Ho!”
In 2020, Gina and Ashley began to recruit more friends and co-workers to help. They again delivered an early Christmas to kindergarteners at Southside Academy and also pulled together a surprise visit from the Easter bunny the following spring.
This year, now with a solid group of Santa’s helpers that includes nurses from the hospital’s Pediatrics Unit in Boardman, School Health Services, PRN service, and the St. Elizabeth Hospital NICU, they delivered a Christmas surprise for 12 kindergartners at Youngstown Community School overnight on Dec. 15.
On Thursday morning, the children walked into their classroom and, according to teacher Alyssa Buzzacco, the most frequent comment was, “This is the best day of my life!”
“They were so over-the-moon excited,” she said. “They unwrapped their gifts. There were coloring books and crayons, stuffed animals, personalized stockings, puzzles, socks, hats and gloves. They even had pizza delivered for lunch. I didn’t even try to bring them down to Earth and just let them enjoy the day.”
The room was decked in holiday wonder: presents under the tree in red and white stripped wrapping paper, with ribbons and “special delivery from the North Pole” tags. Tables set with favors, bells and chocolates. Activity stations set up and creative touches that would obviously get the stamp of approval from the classroom’s Elf on the Shelf (the children named him “Little Bro”).
Gina said it’s what the season is all about.
“As nurses, we hear tragic stories all the time and realize there are a number of kids, especially in our inner-city neighborhoods, who may not be fortunate enough to have Santa visit them for a number of reasons,” she said. “Although we cannot change their life circumstances, we are able to give them one moment of joy that will hopefully last a lifetime. Plus, I think it’s a great way for us to give back to the kids in our community outside of the hospital setting.”
The other secret Santas helping Gina and Ashley this year were: Daziana Velasquez, Nadine Berezny, Carlye Hernandez, Selina Kratofil, and Jennifer and Brian Petruska.
Alyssa said the generosity of her classroom’s Secret Santas is especially poignant to her when she thinks about the nurses working on the front-lines of a pandemic, but still finding time for this.
“It literally brought tears to my eyes,” she said.