PORT ORANGE, Fla. – High school can be a tough time for many kids. There’s the struggle to fit in and the added burden of keeping up with the latest trends.
Kids coming from low-income homes have one more challenge. But every holiday season, one high school teacher tries to make it a little easier.
Joey Miller, a behavior specialist at Spruce Creek High School, surprises eligible kids with the gift of their choice. Miller’s office is tucked away in the records department. Filing cabinets line the walls of the large open space. It seems spacious now but in a matter of days, there will be little room to move around.
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“It looks like one of the prize stages on the Price is Right,” Miller said. “It’s crazy. You’ll walk in and there’s stacks of shoes, there could be a surf board there and a skate board here, a hoverboard and stockings hanging from the ceiling.”
All those items and more are part of what Miller calls Operation Awesome Christmas, a project he started eight years ago.
The grass roots effort is his way of making sure all the students of Spruce Creek High School have a memorable holiday.
Miller’s position as behavior specialist puts him in contact with kids in all grades and across the student body. Miller monitors the lunch room and visits many of the classrooms throughout the day.
“You get to know the students,” Miller explained. “The kids befriend the teachers. They kind of open up a little bit. You learn about them, their interests, their behavior, their academics.”
Each year, Miller asks teachers to identify which students might need something extra around the holidays. An annual “get to know you” questionnaire that all students fill out gives him an idea of what they might want. The form concludes with the question: “If you could ask for one thing for Christmas it would be?”
The answers on the form also remind Miller of the need in his community. “I’ve had some heartbreaking ones,” Miller remembers. “One kid said, ‘I just wish my family could have a normal Christmas.’ Another said, ‘I wish my mom wasn’t incarcerated.’”
Miller does his best with the material things.
“I compile a list and then through the help of the community, friends and family we try to make those wishes come true,” Miller said.
The first year he bought gifts for a handful of students.
“I wasn’t happy with that because I knew we could do better,” Miller remembers. “It’s been growing ever since then.” Last year Operation Awesome Christmas was able to provide gifts for nearly 70 students.
Each kid is able to pick out a new pair of shoes. They also get another gift that can range from gift cards to surfboards, earbuds and even a PlayStation. Miller said he tries not to let price be a consideration.
“Sometimes these kids get nominated more than one year but by the second or third year, they also know that if they got a huge gift, another year they may get something else.”
“There’s a lot of smiling faces around here,” Miller said. “It’s cool.”
Between classes, Miller surfs the internet looking for sales on the things he knows his kids will like. “Anything Nike, anything Jordan,” he says with a laugh.
On the shelf in front of him there’s a coffee mug with the Superman logo. The image is also incorporated into the Operation Awesome Christmas logo.
“He was my Superman,” Miller said. “When I was growing up, my dad worked very hard. He and my mom loved Christmas, taking care of us, but they also liked taking care of the community.”
Miller explained the memory of his dad inspires him to help others.
“I would watch my parents each year go shopping for bikes. My dad worked three jobs, he busted his tail for us, but he saw the need in the community too and he wanted to help out.”
Miller was nominated for the News 6 Getting Results Award by his longtime friend, Clai Parker.
“I know the memory of his dad is a big deal. I know that it’s something that speaks to him,” Parker said. “He wants those kids to be able to have stuff like everybody else has. And it’s not about the price, it’s really just about making them happy.”
Miller says he and the staff discreetly distribute the gifts before the school’s holiday break.
“I physically hand these gifts to these kids. I get to see the smiles and I get the hugs and the appreciation. It brings out the emotion. It gives you purpose for what you’re doing,” Miller said. “You’re not just writing a check for a bike. You’re seeing the joy in the eyes of a teenager who never thought that they would get any of these things.”
Miller relies on friends, family, school staff and social media to support Operation Awesome Christmas.
If you would like to help with donations, Miller suggests you reach out through Spruce Creek High School located at 801 Taylor Road in Port Orange or contact 386-756-7200.