Caven Enterprises continues tradition of giving gifts and more to Sam Houston Elementary School students
In November, children at Sam Houston Elementary School on Throckmorton Street in Oak Lawn wrote to Santa Claus asking for gifts.
But those requests didn’t go to the North Pole. Instead, they went to JR.’s, TMC, Sue Ellen’s and Station 4.
On Thursday, Dec. 17, the students left school knowing Santa would be there overnight.
Ed Oakley and Alan Ross started the gift project in the late 1980s, and back then, Oakley played Santa.
Donald Solomon took over the event in 1997, the year JR.’s first remodeled and expanded, he remembered.
"We adopted the kindergarten, 183 kids. The next year we did pre-K through 3. Each club took on a grade," said Solomon, now director of corporate purchasing for Caven Enterprises.
Caven’s Rick Espaillat said the goal was to be a good neighbor and help neighborhood kids.
The school is the second poorest in the Dallas Independent School District. Of the total number of children at Sam Houston, 94 percent are eligible for free school lunches.
And on Dec. 3, the aging facility, which is undergoing repairs, celebrated its 100th birthday.
Despite these disadvantages, test scores in recent years have improved. Solomon said that the school’s performance has gone from "low performer" to just short of "exemplary."
Since the mid 1990s, enrollment at the school has decreased from a high of 848 children to 293 this year. That decrease is attributable to the neighborhood’s changing demographics as well as newer schools that have opened in Oak Lawn that were planned to eventually replace this deteriorating facility.
Since they first adopted the kindergarten, Caven’s involvement has been more than just Christmas presents.
At the start of the school year each year, patrons and employees have contributed school supplies for children whose families cannot afford any. In the past, volunteers have painted playground equipment and participated in reading programs, as well.
And of course, to help brighten the holidays, Caven employees and their patrons fill those wish lists when the children write letters to Santa.
A number of companies have helped as well. Beer and alcohol distributors Andrews and Ben E. Keith contribute toys collected at their Christmas parties. But, Solomon stressed, that no mention is made of the liquor companies or of the bars in the school.
PepsiCo has been a sponsor for a number of years, too.
The first year the soft drink company participated, it gave each student a Mountain Dew, a drink with twice the caffeine as most other soft drinks. Learning from that mistake, PepsiCo now supplies juice and Fritos.
McKaren Industries, the owner of 11 McDonalds in Oak Lawn, Downtown and Oak Cliff, donated enough beanie babies this year that each student will get one.
Solomon said other bars contributed and mentioned Brick owner Howard Okon and Woody’s, owned by Matt Miller, who donated money toward the project or adopted entire classes. Caven, itself, filled the wishes of 100 of the children.
The gifts are distributed unwrapped to make sure that while requests are filled, the number and value of presents are evenly distributed among the children.
Not all requests are equal, and in some cases Santa has been quite generous. A few years ago, one child had requested a computer. A JR.’s patron bought him a new Apple. They hid it in the office until after school that day and sent it home with the family after everyone else was gone.
"For lots of kids, this is the only toy they’ll receive," Solomon said. And for many Caven customers, these are the only children they have to buy toys for.
This year, he said a second grader only wanted something for his little sister.
"He’s getting something — and so is his little sister," Solomon said.
One year the second graders noticed that Santa didn’t leave anything for the teachers and wondered if they had been naughty all year. Now each teacher gets a gift card to Target. Solomon said most just use it to buy school supplies for their classes.
"Right now, JR.’s looks like Toys ‘R Us," he said, but by Thursday evening, it is the school that will be filled with presents.
Solomon said that one boy who asked for a Barbie and Easy Bake Oven will get his wishes granted and joked that you never know when you’re developing new customers.
This year, every third grader will receive an English-Spanish dictionary. DISD did not have the money for them and Solomon called the books crucial for successful testing. The school is more than 80 percent Hispanic.
The project was so successful, that there will be plenty of gifts left over.
The extras will go to the Oak Lawn library and the nearby Medrano Elementary School to distribute.
Solomon said that the most gratifying thing is seeing some of the children at Kroger. They run up to him and hug him and introduce him to their parents. But that’s what makes a good neighborhood, he said.
Espaillat said it’s never too late to contribute. He said whenever he is at Office Depot, he picks up extra paper, pencils or other school supplies and drops them off at the school.
He encouraged people who would still like to support Sam Houston Elementary to buy some school supplies for the students. The Sam Houston office is right inside the front door. With all of the DISD cutbacks, he said, donations are always welcome.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 18, 2009.