EL RENO, Okla. (KFOR) — The auditorium stage at El Reno High was overflowing with presents, both wrapped and unwrapped, on a Wednesday morning.
Teachers Peggy Haynes and Rhonda Emenhorst gave marching orders for volunteer students to put small gifts, handwritten cards and personal letters of thanks into packages addressed to patients at Oklahoma City’s Veterans’ Hospital.
“Every gift is priced between $15 and $20,” explains Mrs. Haynes.
This was Zefrehnde Buford’s second year to participate in ‘Gifts for Yanks’.
“I came to wrap gifts for the veterans and,” she adds, “to, hopefully, make them smile.”
Two former principals and teachers here, Pat Liticker and Matt Goucher, grew up with ‘Gifts for Yanks’ not ever considering what it might be like to drop it.
“It’s just a tradition that’s been going on for as long as anyone can remember,” says Liticker.
Goucher continues, “I think the community in general is just very historic and tradition minded.”
As WWII wound down there were hundreds of schools across the country that stepped up to raise money and buy Christmas gifts for veterans.
In 1998 we interviewed Leslie Robeluer, who was there to help organize at the beginning.
“We wanted to stand tall,” he told us then, “and carry out a reflection of thanks to those who had given.”
Students over the years both crowded and decked the hospital halls, passing out presents and saying thanks personally.
“I really enjoyed giving them something to look forward to, you know,” said one student on a previous hospital visit.
As time went on, ‘Gifts for Yanks’ participation dwindled.
Schools groups joined and dropped off.
El Reno kept going, the only high school in the United States to participate every year.
Seventy-five years in, the community still boasts lots of people like freshman Jayen Taylor who flipped a lot of onion burgers to make the $100 bill he brought to school.
“I feel like I can’t ever give back enough,” he says.
This year marks the first year in the program’s history that students won’t be allowed to give these gifts in person, but they plan to be out front handing them out and singing again, giving thanks to the men and women who most need it and most deserve it.
The students and some staff at El Reno High were scheduled to sing carols and hand out gift boxes in front of the VA hospital on Thursday, Dec. 9.
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