More than 70 bicycles for people of all sizes and ages, along with a plethora of various toys — $25,000 worth — filled a portion of the Benton Middle School cafeteria on Wednesday.
All those bikes and toys, thanks to the student-operated Elf Club, will spread Christmas cheer to hundreds of less fortunate families in Saline County.
"This day is all they (students) talked about," said Cindy Haltom, Benton Middle School teacher and Elf Club co-sponsor.
She said the students worked hard throughout the entire school year with various fundraising programs "just so they could spend a day at the Benton Walmart to shop for other people."
" It is truly a testament of 'it is better to give than to receive' and Walmart even gave the group an extra $1,300 to shop with and snacks and drinks for the Elf Club members," she said.
Haltom said she was amazed at the manners of more than 80 students who joined in the shopping spree early Wednesday.
"They were all so well-behaved," she said. "They all had their calculators out and worked together in teams. They are all good kids."
During the shopping trip, the students are divided into groups and each group is alloted a certain amount of money to spend. To help stay on budget, the students use calculators.
The students are told to buy for certain age groups and for either boys or girls. Then they bring it all back to Benton Middle School.
After filling up the cafeteria with all the bicycles and toys, the Elf Club presented the gifts to the Saline County Kiwanis Club, which along with the Churches Joint Council on Human Needs, will distribute everything to numerous families in Saline County just in time for Christmas.
The Elf Club, made up of sixth- and seventh-graders, started in 1992, the first year the middle school was opened. Students at the school approached Donna Gattin about holding a toy drive. The group was called Toys for Tots and collected $3,000 its first year. In 1994, Yvonne Cates acquired the club and the amount the club collected then grew to $15,000. Eventually, the name changed to the Elf Club, and now the club is run by Haltom, Karen Heatherly and Becky McCormick.
To get into the club, a sixth- or seventh-grade student simply has to write a paragraph about why he or she wants to join the Elf Club, Haltom said. What they learn in the group can change their perspectives, mature them and can give the students lifelong memories, she noted.
But in order to join the shopping spree at the local Walmart, club organizers have certain qualifications, including the student attending at least seven meetings, demonstrating an eagerness to volunteer when needed, and being a top seller in a butter braids fundraiser. Out of the more than 130 students in the Elf Club, 82 students joined the Elf Club shopping spree.
Haltom said the members begin their fundraising goals with a chore weekend; the effort culminates with the toy shopping day. The members perform chores for families and the money they earn is then donated to the club for future toy purchases. The club also hosts several fundraisers throughout the year, including a beach volleyball game, Elf Club dance, sale of everything from butter braids to pencils and erasers, to cookies and sodas, to popcorn and paper turkey feathers, and much more.
The group sponsored a talent show this year as an additional means of raising funds.
"The club may organize all the events, and the members basically do all the work, but the entire school gets behind them and are strong participants," McCormick said. "These students do it all and that's amazing."