My 95-year-old grandmother likes to say it’s better to give than receive. She’s a big giver; definitely keeps Hallmark in business.

And I agree with her – giving is rewarding. My younger son recently attended a 10-year-old’s birthday party where the guest of honor requested toys for Toni’s Kitchen in lieu of presents for himself.

During the holiday season, Toni’s Kitchen has an annual toy drive for kids. The boy – whose actual birthday is very close to Thanksgiving – has been supporting Toni’s for years. He first got acquainted with the organization when he was enrolled at the Watchung Co-op. Full disclosure, this writer went there, too.

Montclair has a long, rich history of giving and much of this spirit and tradition has roots in our schools. Administrators, teachers and the PTAs work hard to provide meals and gifts discreetly at the holidays and often year-round.

At times the need is great. Four years ago at Bullock we provided Thanksgiving meals for nearly 50 families. But this year that number is much smaller. 

During my time at Bullock I’ve been impressed by the school’s holiday spirit and general sense of community. Our principal, Nami Kuwabara, has worked hard to foster a culture of caring – and not just in November and December.

But where did it all come from? I decided to dig around to find out more about our school’s history of giving. Turns out there’s a lot to be unearthed.

Before there was CHB, there was Rand. In 1989 the Montclair school district began expanding the school magnet system, and Rand was born. It was located in the building now called Renaissance (at Rand).

Rand became the environmental magnet school. Every class had a garden and families frequently volunteered to maintain the garden. The classrooms had grow-labs, worm boxes with nightcrawlers and compost. There was a clear connection to food. The basement of the school also housed food services.

According to Rand’s former principal, Barbara Weller, when Rand first began the faculty included a full-time family counselor position. Today we’d call this person the student assistance counselor.

But having a full-time counselor was not the norm in 1990. At the time Rand was tiny – just seven classes the first year. That counselor, Vivian Schuchinski, worked very closely with the student population and recognized there were families in extreme need.

That first year Schuchinski suggested getting a turkey and trimmings for a few families. It was all very low-key. There were maybe 10 families who participated in the Thanksgiving meal. Schuchinski was the only one who knew who they were.

Weller says the program was well received. And like Rand, it kept growing. Weller had a food pantry at Rand, too.

There were other programs in and around town for holiday gifting but there was something about the food component that was different. And something about bringing joy to students and their families during the holiday season and just about any time.

Linda Lendman was a school counselor for many years in the district, including at Rand and CHB. She recalls a time when she returned to her office and there were 25 cupcakes on her desk and a note with no signature. The note said to give the cupcakes to a specific student for their birthday.

“This was the ultimate way to give and care,” Lendman said. “The person who donated the cupcakes knew that this child would not have a birthday if not for school.”

At Rand, students collected food for Toni’s Kitchen. And when Rand became Bullock in 2010, this tradition of giving back continued and blossomed.

We still do Thanksgiving meals and holiday gifts but there is so much more under the radar – Halloween costumes, winter coats, school supplies and books. And until COVID hit, the school also had a food pantry.

When the schools shut down, CHB donated the pantry’s contents to Toni’s. Principal Kuwabara says the pantry will reopen. The amazing trio of Ms. Kuwabara, Nurse Christine Langton and CHB’s counselor Lauren Gutierrez is always looking out for students and families in need.

Sometimes the school provides a turkey and stuffing and other times it’s a gift card for a supermarket. And sometimes it’s just a water bottle.

But what I’ve learned is that the people who run Bullock and the ones who started at Rand have established a community that keeps an eye on one another in good times and bad and in between.

Jaime Bedrin is an adjunct instructor at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses in journalism and media ethics. She also helps run the Montclair Kids News. When she's not in class, you can find her on the tennis court or volunteering in the schools.