Charles Dickens, author of the famed “A Christmas Carol” about a bitter old man who transforms his life for the better after being visited by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come and learns the significance of helping others, once said, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” These words graciously reflect what the young men and women walking the halls at Kennesaw Mountain High School (KMHS) do each holiday season, including the upcoming 2014 holiday season.
Since 2004, the student government association, Mane Link, at Kennesaw Mountain, has hosted “Shop with a Mustang” (the school’s mascot), helping more than 7,000 students and their families during the holidays throughout the years. Billy Richardson, KMHS administrator and Mane Link advisor, says student council members year-round raise money, working unselfishly so that they can take a less-fortunate child, preschool through sixth grade, shopping for Christmas presents. Students in seventh though 12th grades participate in Secret Santa. KMHS students sell drinks at events like the Big Shanty Festival, which is held annually by the City of Kennesaw and Kennesaw Business Association (KBA), assist community partners with their projects, in turn receiving donations for the program, get support from their parents and often collect money in buckets during their lunch periods. “I tell the kids they will feel better about what they have done if they have had to work for it,” Richardson says, adding that all the money raised for Shop with a Mustang is solely collected by the students and that they don’t accept unsolicited funds.
KBA member Mike Everhart, who is also co-owner of Great Gig Dance Co. and vice president of Southern Office Machines, has partnered with the program since its inception. He says Shop with a Mustang is modeled after Shop with a Hero, which matches public safety and military personnel with a child in need to shop for presents during Christmas. “Over the years, the seed that was planted was nurtured by the schools,” Everhart says. “The administration at KMHS was fully behind the creation of program and the kids began doing an amazing job.” Later, when the City of Kennesaw and KBA partnered for the Taste of Kennesaw event, Everhart says they decided that all proceeds would benefit community charities like Shop with a Mustang. “We also wanted the community to have a vested ‘buy-in’ to support Taste,” Everhart recalls. “KBA’s long involvement with education made involvement with the high schools a no-brainer.” Including donations that will be handed out this year, KBA and the Taste event will have donated more than $70,000 in support of community programs like Shop with a Mustang. “It is both rewarding and refreshing to see the young high school students taking an interest in their community,” Everhart says. “They serve and give back with great enthusiasm. Too often our young people get a bad rap and are characterized as being disengaged and self-centered. These programs have given our young people a vehicle to serve, give and show love for other children and families in our community who need some help at Christmas time.”
John Loud, owner of LOUD Security Systems and KBA member, says he is personally inspired by the sense of pride students working with these program develop when they are able to help another child and take a role in leadership. “Shop with a Mustang helps cross lines where some students might not interact with other kids during the school year,” he adds. “This allows them to work with a good cause and put others before themselves, and it benefits not just the kids, but the community as a whole.”
How it All Works
Each holiday, counselors at KMHS and the schools that feed into Kennesaw Mountain help connect Mane Link members with students to participate in Shop with a Mustang and Secret Santa. “We average more than 200 kids per year [shopping],” Richardson says. “Each child receives a new KMHS hoodie, the ability to spend $125 on themselves; we provide breakfast and lunch, wrap each gift, and then we take the kids through Santa’s workshop to spend $20 on their parents.” Their goal this year is to help 225 children with the shopping program and about 50 students with Secret Santa.
On the day of the event, which is scheduled for Dec. 13 this year, Mane Link members are matched with a child for their shopping trip at The Avenue West Cobb shopping complex off Dallas Highway. Children are each given a Visa gift card and if they ever run a little short, Richardson says members of Cobb’s business community who have partnered with the school for this event will then step in to help pay the balance. He adds that they use gift cards for several reasons. “It assists our students in maintaining a budget,” Richardson says. “It empowers our students—they know they raised that money and they take great pride in spending it on a needy child. It assists the kids to learn organization and some basic accounting principles. It demonstrates to our student leaders that we trust them and expect them to be men and ladies of integrity.”
Kim T. Connelly, marketing manager with Lennar Commercial that manages The Avenue West Cobb, says Shop with a Mustang is one of their favorite events to work with the schools on. “Seeing the administration and high school students volunteer their time and disposable income to benefit children from their feeder schools is truly inspiring,” she adds. “Even children benefitting from the event that don’t have winter coats will forgo items for themselves to purchase gifts for their family members.” In addition to allowing the shopping extravaganza to take place on their site, Connelly says The Avenue provides a monetary donation, in-kind donations and additional staffing and security for the event. “We also leverage our retailer relationships to secure exclusive discounts for attendees to help the dollars stretch as far as possible,” she says.
Why it Started
KMHS graduate Madelyn Woodall and other student council members at that time came up with the idea in 2004. “They stated that through our Character Ed program and our goal of servant leadership, we need to take care of our future Mustangs,” Richardson recalls, adding that since day one, the school has been committed to building servant leaders in its school. “We operate the school asking all stakeholders to be engaged and involved in the decision making,” he says. KMHS Principal Kevin Daniel and Richardson regularly eat lunch with students to talk about what’s going on in their school. There is a similar relationship between the school and its community leaders. “We have business leaders as mentors,” Richardson says. “We have positive relationships with our community organizations, such as the Kennesaw Business Association, Rotary Club, North Cobb Civitan Club, Acworth Business Association, Kiwanis and various other groups… We started a youth city council program to advise our local politicians on issues that affect the future. The influence of this style of leadership has provided a safe environment for our kids to want to make a positive impact in our community.”
With this philosophy and community support in mind, what Kennesaw Mountain student leaders started 10 years ago is now far reaching—and not just inside the north Cobb community. The program started with 100 KMHS student council members volunteering their time and energy, and now more than 600 help out. Also, since 2007, 30 high schools in Cobb and other metro areas, in addition to state universities, have started their own Shop with a Mascot programs. Kell High has Shop with a Longhorn, North Cobb High hosts Shop with a Warrior, and KMHS graduates created Shop with a Bulldawg at the University of Georgia and Shop with a Yellow Jacket at Georgia Tech. “Leadership is about influence,” Richardson says when asked what it means to see the program spreading. “It is truly a blessing to watch students look for a way to make a positive influence in their community.”