Every kid should have a reason to smile at Christmas. But having joy in your heart is something that might be especially hard this time of year for homeless teens served by Covenant House.

That's why the members of the junior class at the Pilgrim Academy in Galloway Township decided to reach out to help.

Led by 16-year-old Patrick Walsh, whose family has a tradition of helping Covenant House at the holidays, the students donated 40 Christmas stockings they filled with toiletries and other items to give to the shelter in Atlantic City.

"The class wanted to do something to help. We tossed around a few ideas and took a vote, and everybody was on board," said Walsh from his home in Mullica Township.

The class project began earlier this month when the teens heard from Jennifer Williams, program coordinator at Covenant House Atlantic City, a frequent guest speaker at the school. Her message hit home with just one question: What did you need to get ready for school this morning? Simple staples of teenage hygiene such as face wash, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, a comb and mirror, are among the most coveted items by those served at Covenant House.

"It really put things in perspective for me and my classmates," Walsh said. "The things we all take for granted everyday, for the kids there, they consider that a great present."

Donating their own money, the students quickly organized and bought a variety of trial-sized items and Christmas candy to fill the stockings.

"It really makes you feel how blessed we are, to think that this small token might be something that makes a big difference in somebody's life," said Walsh, who grew up in the belief that helping others is everybody's responsibility.

Walsh is following in the footsteps of his older brother, Logan, who graduated from Pilgrim Academy last year and is now in college. Logan's annual blanket drive for Covenant House began when he was 4 years old and is something he still continues. When he was in 11th grade at Pilgrim Academy, his fellow students joined his efforts to support Covenant House.

Now, Patrick, who feels a calling to mentor disadvantaged kids, was aided by his own 11th grade class.

"Everyone was really supportive. It was a group effort," Patrick said of the stocking donations. "I hope Pilgrim students want to keep doing this every year."

Gina Walsh, Patrick and Logan's mother, said she couldn't be prouder of her boys and their commitment to help others. And she is not surprised that her sons' classmates are equally civic minded.

"Teens get a reputation for being self-centered, but that is definitely not the case. These students are really good kids who genuinely want to help," she said. "They deserve a lot of credit."

The teachers and staff at Pilgrim also are credited with supporting the stocking drive.

The stockings were included in the Walsh family's traditional Christmas donation drop to Covenant House's Atlantic Avenue site this past weekend.

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