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Southeast High students grant an early Christmas for ARC students

BRADENTON -- Twelve-year-old Johnny Pollares can’t speak. But that didn’t prevent the developmentally disabled student from showing his glee Wednesday as he received a neatly wrapped present from Santa Claus.

He waved the rectangular box in the air like it was a prized possession. He showed it to teachers, aides and others. His ear-to-ear smile was hard to miss. To him, it didn’t matter that he hadn’t unwrapped the treasure.

Pollares and 10 other classmates who attend Manasota ARC were granted a special Christmas Day courtesy of Southeast High School’s student government association.

Southeast students decorated the Manasota ARC classroom. They ate cake with the ARC’s students. They sang carols. And the high schoolers brought along a local St. Nick as part of their community service.

Southeast’s science department Chairman Steve Foster wore the red, white and black uniform the jolly old elf normally sports. ARC students, donned Christmas hats embossed with their name in glitter, got a chance to sit on Santa’s lap.

The result of the high schoolers’ efforts couldn’t be missed among the Manasota ARC attendees.

“They’re so excited,” Manasota ARC teacher Raejean Hawk said. “They love to do anything hands-on.”

Manasota ARC’s program serves as an alternative school for those with developmental disabilities. The ARC’s students get to work on daily living and motor skills and communication during the day.

Student government President Marissa Maulbeck, 18, said they immersed themselves in the Christmas spirit after hearing what Hawk had to say about the students attending Manasota ARC.

“Some of them won’t have a Christmas like normal,” Maulbeck said. “We really wanted to help children for the holiday season.”

Many of the Manasota ARC students come from families with low socioeconomic status.

“They’re below poverty levels,” Hawk said.

Teachers and staffers at Southeast High School sponsored gifts for the 11 students with disabilities. Foster came in to the small class with a hearty “Ho, ho, ho.” He carried several 3-foot-long Christmas stockings. Coloring books, crayons, MP3 or CD players and toys that make noise were pulled out of each student’s oversized stocking.

Nineteen-year-old Kevin Romaines, who has Down syndrome, was overcome with gales of laughter as he pulled out books from his stocking.

The idea to brighten up ARC students’ day came from 16-year-old Southeast student Anna Shah. She aspires to be a neurologist and looked right at home playing a keyboard and talking with ARC students.

“It just feels amazing,” Shah said. “It feels so great to be helping them.”

Foster echoed her enthusiasm. He served as Santa for Special Olympics when he lived in Indiana.

“I win on this,” he said after getting hugs from ARC students. “How could you not want to be Santa Claus?”