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Students, community members helping to make the holidays brighter for some local families

WEST CHAZY - When it comes to having a happy holiday season, the staff at Beekmantown Elementary School strives to make sure no child is left behind.

School psychologist Ilona Kelting serves as co-coordinator of the Holiday Cares program, which collects Christmas presents and personal items for underprivileged families. The program, said Kelting, depends on school staff to submit confidential nominations of families from within the school district whom they consider to be in need. The staff then reaches out to businesses and individuals in the community for donations, which also includes winter necessities such as winter coats, hats and boots.

"This is my fourth Christmas at Beekmantown and each year the Holiday Cares program has grown to help more and more needy families," said Kelting.

The first year she was involved with the program, said Kelting, enough gifts were purchased to help five families. That number doubled the following year, and has grown even more in the years since.

What has especially helped the program continue to grow, said Kelting, has been the support of employees from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. Correction officer Shane Muller is credited for spearheading a Holiday Cares collection from jail employees since 2006, when he learned about the program from third-grade teacher Kirsten LaMontagne.

"Kirsten told me how there were names of children left over to buy presents for, so I told her to let me know what they needed and we would take care of them," recalled Muller. "I told her to just tell me what they needed. I didn't want any names. I just wanted us to be able to give these kids a good Christmas."

That year, 14 children were on the list, ranging in age from 18 months old to 14 years old, said Muller. When he approached his co-workers for the first time about the program, it wasn't long before Muller had the money he needed to buy all the presents on the list.

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