By Sherrie Norris
Transformed into a shopping boutique for one week each December, the Little Theatre at Hardin Park School in Boone is having a profound effect on numerous students and their parents, as well as the school’s faculty, staff and generous volunteers.
It started as The Christmas Store, and continues as same today, a brainchild of teacher Joni Horine and her sons, who came up with the unique idea about 15 years ago. Not only has it grown since it first began but the “store” continues as a much-anticipated community project every year for all involved.
It’s never been a secret to those with close ties to the school, but for some, learning about it in recent days opened up new opportunities for sharing and caring.
Thanks to a December 1 social media post by fourth-grade teacher, Corrie Freeman, explaining how the “store” operates — and the fact that gifts were needed more than ever this year — offers to help began pouring in almost immediately.
Freeman shared, “Each year Hardin Park (for as long as I can remember) has had a Christmas Store where kids can shop for their parents, if needed. It is set up like an actual store and kids can really shop’ and wrap their gifts, all free of charge. Joni Horine, one of our teachers, saw a need many years ago, and chose to make a difference. I am happy to have witnessed it grow from this teacher’s dream.”
As a single parent, Freeman said it was something close to her heart: “Because many kids get the opportunity to shop here for that one parent (or for both) when they might not otherwise have the chance to do so.”
She added, “It’s also an awesome opportunity for us to give and share what we have, but no longer need.”
Within hours of her post, and by week’s end when the store was ready for “business,” the outpouring of response and support was a tremendous blessing, Freeman said.
High Country Press had the privilege of speaking with Joni Gray Horine, who, now as a fulltime faculty member, was an actively involved parent and PTA member at the time she started The Christmas Store, along with her children,
“I grew up with a father who always said it’s more blessed to give than to receive,” she shared. “That’s not what four girls who had to share one room really liked to hear. However, it stuck with me.”
Having later passed that lesson on to her own sons, it was during one Christmas when they were trying to decide how they wanted to serve that her son, Josh, said they could teach others the joy of giving.” “Hearing that was the greatest gift I could receive,” Horine recalled. “We talked with Mrs. Smalling, the school principal at the time, who agreed with our idea, and gave us a small room from which to work. We called family and some friends and soon packed the room with gifts — and then we invited children to shop for their parents. Every day and every moment was a blessing that year, and has been the same every year since.”
The impact the store has had on countless students and their parents has been nothing short of inspirational, Horine said, recalling story after story of how families have been influenced.
“The stories that the children and their parents have shared through the years have been incredible,” she said. “One student said she chose an angel for her mom because it would remind her of the baby she had just lost; another wanted gloves for her dad so he wouldn’t hurt his hands while he was (working) in prison — ‘We can’t wrap them because they don’t let him get wrapped things,’ the child added.”
The “tear-jerking stories” have flowed on, and the heart-felt gratitude has been beyond words, Horine added. “One student was brought back by his teacher to return a mug he had gotten for his dad who had recently died. The teacher explained that his dad wouldn’t be needing that in heaven. Through the tears, I told him to come back the next day and we would send a gift to his dad. My boys had also lost their father a few years before. The next day we asked any student who wanted to send a message to heaven to come outside. We all wrote our own little message and tied them to some red balloons and released them together.”
Another mother called the school, four years after receiving her gifts, saying how the items her son chose for her helped her through a difficult time and that she had taken them to the hospital with her during her illness.
“Every year, we hear stories of how the gifts have touched lives of the students and their families. We cry just talking about it.”
In her first year teaching at Hardin Park, Holly Klein sees this as a “really wonderful way to share with our children the spirit of giving, and to broaden our own perspective of giving.”
Even though Horine’s status changed from active parent to faculty member through the years, she has remained involved with the project and loves working with her Hardin Park family, as well as her own family to insure its success each year. In fact, her son, Josh, who helped jumpstart the Christmas store initially, also continues to participate by creating lovely greeting cards to accompany student selections each year. His 2020 work of art, a glowing candle on a 4 x 6-inch card that had initially been carved into a wooden block and then reproduced onto paper, says it all. “This year’s theme is hope,” Josh said. “We really want the students and their parents to feel hopeful, despite all that’s going on around us during this time.”
The Horines and those who continue to work with the store, (which includes four key individuals), say not only has its success continued to grow through the years, but so have the donations and the blessings.
“We were a little worried this year, in light of our current situation in general, that donations were down, but once I shared my thoughts with the faculty and staff, and Corrie Freeman put that message out there on Facebook, the feedback has been incredible,” Jonie added.
“Every year, someone who has been gifted at some point shares a story, and this year is no exception,” said Joni Horine. “A parent wrote on Facebook that was the only gift she received for years and now is able to contribute to the donations of items. We are so lucky and fortunate. We are thankful for all who have given and continue to give to The Christmas store, so that others will learn the joy of giving.”
And as for the students who come to shop, Horine said, “They really put so much thought into their selections. This might be the only gift they are able to give to their mom or dad, so they want it to be very special.”
Horine noted that, yes, it is called The Christmas Store, but is open to all students, regardless of religious beliefs. “Every child who wants to participate can be a part of it and choose a holiday gift for their parents.”
About one-third of the student population in the county’s largest school, or about 250 youngsters, participate each year, and are given the opportunity by teachers and/or counselors who are aware of their individual situations. “And the kids always tell us if they want to be included or know another student who might want to shop.”
The shopping experience, which includes the children wrapping the gifts they choose, is always handled with discretion and respect for the participants. “No one knows who participates, unless that student just wants to share it with others. We are very careful about all that, and do our best to protect their privacy and dignity,” Horine said.
Hardin Park Principal, Philip Norman, surmised, “This ongoing project that Ms. Horine and her boys, both of whom are Hardin Park alumni, started several years ago, has grown tremendously over the years and has served so many Hardin Park students and their families. Since everything is donated, of course there is no actual cost to the students. It has been so heartwarming this year to hear stories from those families who have benefited from the store. Some years these gifts are some of the only gifts that their families receive. It truly puts the emphasis where it belongs during this season — on the gift of giving.”
Items that are not chosen in any given year are stored for the next year, and donations of new and/or gently used items for men and women are always appreciated, beginning the week after Thanksgiving through the first week of December. Feel free to contact the school for more information.
These photos represent the many items available in The Christmas Store at Hardin Park School, lovingly donated and displayed for students to have an opportunity to shop for their moms and dads during this holiday season: