By Danielle Catalano
It wasn’t exactly Santa’s sleigh, but the large, hunter green Shafer’s Tour and Charters bus that pulled up to the Children’s Home of Wyoming Conference Monday afternoon was about to deliver an abundance of holiday cheer. Stowed beneath the bus were ten 39-gallon-size garbage bags filled with toys collected by Binghamton Senators players and booster club members just a few weeks earlier and awaiting to be passed out to the nearly two dozen youngsters inside the school’s gymnasium.
As defenseman Matt Carkner, captain Denis Hamel and left wing Greg Mauldin—all decked out in Santa hats and elf ears—worked quickly to unload the packages, their fortitude was met by rousing waves of applauds from the students, parents, and staff. Off to the side, Kelly Clark, director of the day-treatment center for youths, choked back tears as the players arranged the final gifts.
“I can’t believe they did all this,” Clark whispered as she surveyed the stage that was being dwarfed by the presents. “They didn’t have to do this. The kids will be very happy. This will definitely brighten their holiday.”
As if on cue, a 10-year old girl beamed proudly while shredding apart the wrapping paper and unveiled a new winter coat for all to see.
Over the next two hours, each student—mostly 9, 10 and 11-year olds in clusters with their siblings or by themselves—would be called to the front of the gym by one of the players and handed six gifts: three wants and three needs the child specified in letters to the B-Sens. The players and booster club member then “adopted” the child’s family and proceeded with the Christmas shopping.
When a student was handed his or her gift, the “needs” were given first. They included items such as coats, clothing, shoes, gloves and hats. The wants were given last because, “It’s Christmas—you always end with toys,” said Carkner.
The toys were something to behold: remote control cars, airplanes and dinosaurs; an iPod; digital camera; Etch-A-Sketch; skateboards; a Hot Wheels lane raceway; Nintendo DS; night vision binoculars; Guitar Hero; Radiomaster wagon; and Lego stations taller than their recipients—just to name a few.
“Ms. Kelly!,” nine-year old Christopher yelled as he tried to maintain his grasped on a three-foot wide, scaled-to-size aircraft carrier while flagging down his director. “I never got a gift this big before! Can you believe it?”
“This is really good,” said Denise, whose sons Anthony, Eric and David were the day’s first sibling troop to unwrap presents. “To include the whole family and share this with the other families was very thoughtful. The best part is just seeing their faces, their expressions. See?,” she says, pointing to Eric as he and a friend read the instructions on the back of a remote control airplane box while Anthony pranced over to nearby tables, donning his new black shoes.
“Look how happy they are,” she said. “Look how many kids are smiling….A player organized this. Which one? I want to thank him.”
Matt Carkner would be that player, and he has been arranging similar gift-giving events for the last six years with non-profit groups dedicated to helping underprivileged youths. It all started in 2002, when the defensman played for the Cleveland Barons. At the time, team equipment manager Steve Wissman was the one organizing the gift-giving, asking players to donate their time and effort toward the cause. Carkner volunteered immediately.
“It’s something nice to do for kids who don’t have a lot,” he said. “I’m blessed with my family. My brothers, sister, and I had a privileged childhood—we weren’t spoiled or anything like that, but we had a roof over our heads and the essentials. We never had to worry about not having those things.”
In 2003, Wissman accepted a position with the St. Louis Blues, and Carkner took over organizing duties that holiday season, dubbing the event, “Carkner’s Christmas”. He continued the gift drive’s cause after he moved onto the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and when he arrived in Binghamton last year, he asked Ryan Murphy, director of media relations, to make the initial contact with the Children’s Home.
“The timing of this was perfect,” Kelly said. “The Children’s Home is often viewed as the last stop for kids. But these kids are not bad—they just need a renewed sense of how to cognitively focus on their behavior. These kids have been through a lot; they’ve had to overcome a lot things in their young lives that many adults haven’t needed to deal with—that’s why today is a big for them.
“When we were contacted last year,” she continued, “we were just beginning to implement a new teaching philosophy that encouraged positive reinforcement. Students hear things when they do something wrong, but they don’t often hear things when they do something right. That even goes for the parents, who are always expecting that phone call, that their child is in trouble. Rarely do they get the phone call that simply says, ‘Hey, just wanted to let you know that your child did well today in school.’
“So, when something sincere like this happens, it provides that positive reinforcement we’re showing the kids exists. It takes a lot for everyone to accept. They would ask, ‘Why would strangers care about me?’ And we would answer, ‘Because they care about your well-being and they’re recognizing your hard work in school at maintaining that healthy well-being’….Sincerity is a difficult concept for some of our kids to understand; not all have had the opportunity to really see it or experience it.”
Matt Carkner would like to thank his teammates, Binghamton Senators Booster Club, Shaffer’s Tours and Charter Bus and the owners of the Binghamton Senators for their efforts in helping make Monday’s event possible.