Students gather gifts for 'forgotten' teens

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University students are brightening the holidays for a group of adolescents who often go forgotten during the season of giving.

As part of an engaged-learning project in two group-communication classes taught by Department of Communication professor David Henningsen, the students collected about 400 gifts for teens in the foster care system. Young people ages 12 to 17 are often under-represented when people make toy donations for the holidays.

Henningsen created the assignment as a way for his students to study group communication. Fifty-six students in the two classes were split into 10 groups. Each group was asked to create a business plan for a toy drive and analyze how well its members worked together.

The groups had the option of enacting the business plan, and most chose to do so. The vast majority of the collected gifts have already been given to Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois, a nonprofit organization that works with children statewide in the foster system.

“Typically at this time of year, everyone wants to donate gifts aimed at younger kids, but the foster system runs through age 17,” Henningsen said. “We wanted to meet the organization’s need for gifts for this under-represented group.”

Gifts collected by NIU students included assorted sports gear, teen games, cosmetics and accessories for electronic devices. Two of the most successful student groups each collected nearly 100 gifts.

“Both of our groups were very competitive, and we wanted to help out as many teens as possible,” said Nicole Jessen of Geneva, a senior studying communication studies. “First, we wanted to make sure we were collecting the right types of toys. Then we reached out to family, friends and fellow students and just explained our cause.

“Our group was fabulous,” she added. “I learned a lot about how groups form and work together.”

J.J. Jung, a junior from Naperville studying communication studies, snagged one of the most unusual gifts: a University of Florida football jersey of Major Wright, who now plays strong safety for the Chicago Bears.

“My brother and one of his friends have a sports memorabilia company called Bojudo Sports, and the company was able to donate Major Wright’s jersey,” Jung said.

The gift drive provided a great learning experience, he said, adding that his group still has donations coming in. “It’s always good to give back to the community,” he said, “especially to teenagers who are relatively in our age range.”

Leslie Lopez, LCFS donor relations associate, said the NIU students’ cause is a worthy one.

“Christmas is often a difficult time for foster children, and we want to bring a little joy to all those we serve,” she said. “Dr. Henningsen offered to share the business plans with us, and we look forward to seeing what ideas the students came up with and had success with. I had the opportunity to speak to some of the students while they were developing their plans and was impressed by the questions they had.”

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