For the 104 pre-school students of the Venice Park School in Atlantic City, a recent school day ended with a lot of holiday cheer.
Rather than being greeted by their parents at the end of the day, the 3- to 5-year-old students were welcomed by a cheerful Santa Claus, played by Charles "Skip" Conover, a retired Atlantic City Fire Department battalion chief, as a part of the first annual Rocky's Holiday Event - a giving back moment in honor of his adopted grandson, nicknamed Rocky.
"Ho, ho ho! You're all on the nice list!" he announced to each of the four classrooms of smiling children.
Students began lining up to have their few minutes with Santa. Teacher Heather Hieb, of Linwood, who coordinated Conover's efforts, helped prepare her excited group that day.
"It's special just knowing that somebody cares after something so horrible happening, and then being able to give them something in return to lighten their spirits after everything they've been through," she said.
Conover, 70 who splits his time between Spring Hill, Fla., and Smithville with his wife, Patricia, attended the Venice Park School himself in the late 1940s. After reading a Thanksgiving-themed article in The Press of Atlantic City about disabled children at school, he felt he inclined to give back, he said.
"Over the years, we always felt blessed, to be honest," Conover said. "So, we've always tried to give back."
The Christmas event at the small school on Penrose Avenue would be his largest endeavor yet, he admits. But as most of the students were affected by Hurricane Sandy, he knew that his efforts were well spent.
"We felt that there couldn't be a better group (to give back to), and we wanted to do everything we could to make it as memorable as possible," he said.
In order to create a memorable event, Conover reached out to his family as well as local sponsors. Through the website crowdrise.com, the event was made possible by donations exceeding $5,000. Every child received teddy bears, small toys, candy, stockings and more.
Conover's son-in-law, Brian Wiener, an ACFD firefighter for the past 12 years, also lent his services, helping setup the website and gathering donations.
"I think (this event) is really important, especially given recent circumstances," he said. "To see families and teacher not worried about situations like that, to just enjoy the holidays. That's the real meaning of the holidays. Not so much the gifts, but being able to put smiles on (the students') faces."
Wiener's daugher, Breana, 16, also helped out - with an elf's hat on, she helped distribute the large amount of toys, noticing the smiles as she walked the halls.
"(All the students)seem really happy. It's kind of inspiring, it makes me want to do more," she said.
As each student took his or her turn upon Santa's lap, Conover's grandson, now 2 years old, ran up and down the halls of his grandfather's old school.
"I wanted him to grow up and assume the reins," Conover said of the event that he hopes to continue each Christmas. "We want to instill in the young ones the same spirit we had - the Christmas spirit. It doesn't matter what race, religion we are. There's a spirit there."
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