Christmas may only come once a year, but for the Shop with a Bulldawg committee and mentors, the holiday prep is year round.
For the seventh year in a row, SWAB provides a Christmas present shopping experience to Athens-Clarke county children. By pairing kids with two UGA mentors, they have the chance to give and receive gifts regardless of their family’s income.
“Our goal is to serve more kids,” said Abby Jessen, executive director of SWAB. “Every year if we can serve another five kids then we are happy.”
When three UGA freshmen started SWAB in 2009, they had 80 mentors and 40 children. Including the 600 students participating this year, SWAB will have provided this unique Christmas experience to over 2,000 kids.
“This year we will be serving more kids and involving more mentors than ever before,” said Rachel Surminsky, director of mentors. “It has called for a complete overhaul in our event structure.”
On event day, December 5, kids and mentors will gather at the Classic Center to pair up and travel to Target to shop for gifts for themselves and their families. Because of the exponential growth, the event this year will look different than the past.
Choosing a Disney movie theme each year, this year the kids and mentors will be divided up into four Finding Nemo character shifts including Nemo, Crush, Bruce, and Dory. Wearing t-shirts corresponding to their character, kids will take turns rotating from the three stations: shopping, gift-wrapping, and holiday activities.
SWAB encourages the kids to spend their $100 to shop for things they might need and want, but also to think of buying gifts for their friends and family. Mentors guide their mentees and make suggestions, but allow the kids to ultimately decide what they choose to spend their money on.
“Most of the kids spend very little on themselves and they try to buy something special for every person in their family,” said Erin Buckley, director of student achievement and educational equality of Clarke County. “This program allows kids to experience what a great feeling it is to give to someone else.”
“This young boy had the opportunity to purchase something for himself,” said Elizabeth Howard, former SWAB executive director, “but instead he thought of others, and that’s truly what the holidays are all about.”
The mentors are chosen through a SWAB application process beginning in August. The kids are invited by their teachers, counselors and principals.
“They try and choose children who might not have the opportunity to purchase presents for their family, friends and themselves,” Buckley said.
Although SWAB is focused on a Christmas experience and a one-day mentorship, mentors hope to influence kids beyond event day. By seeing and interacting with college students, Buckley says they are more likely to work towards attending college.
Bridging the gap between the university bubble and the Athens community, SWAB attempts to create community-wide relationships and show support for the city that welcomes students.
Jessen says working with kids through the SWAB program has had a profound impact on her life.
“Yes we are changing these kids lives,” Jessen said, “but these kids change our lives so much.”