The holidays are a special time of year when many families gather, recreate traditions, and make memories together. Unfortunately for many of Hillcrest’s residential students, the holidays are spent at school, away from family for a variety of reasons. Some are too far away from home, others are not stable enough to leave Hillcrest, and sadly, some students do not have family to return to.
That means it’s our job to ensure that Hillcrest students have meaningful holiday celebrations with staff, peers, and visiting family members.
Beginning in autumn with campus fall festivals and trick-or-treating all the way to celebrating the new year, the holidays do not pass by unnoticed at Hillcrest.
Every fall, some of our campuses host a fall festival as the October Family Strong event, complete with apple cider donuts, hay rides, and other fall activities. It’s a chance for families to come out and spend meaningful time with their student and for everyone to get in the spirit of the season.
“ASD’s fall festival is always my favorite event!” says Courtney Beaulieu, academic case manager for ASD Residential and one of the Family Strong event coordinators. “This is not just because fall is always so beautiful in the Berkshires, but because the kids have come to look forward to the special events that go along with the fall festival.”
“Starting the first day of school, students begin asking me when the fall festival is going to be and if there is going to be a hay ride again, who is going to be doing face painting, and how many apple cider donuts I’m going to get. It’s so rewarding and endearing to see our students sharing these fun activities with their families, showing off the progress they’ve been making and the things they’ve learned.”
For kids in a residential setting, traditional trick-or-treating is just not an option. And even for some of our kids in our day program, they may not be able to participate for safety reasons. So our students trick or treat down the halls of Hillcrest Academy, stopping at each room to pick out candy and show off their costumes.
“I think trick-or-treating is really important for our kids because, similar to them taking the school bus every day, we want them to have normalizing experiences that neurotypical kids have,” says Kate McAvoy, ASD clinical specialist.
“The kids get excited when we start talking about costumes and figuring what they’re going to wear, what they want to be,” she continues. “We’ve gotten a lot of costumes donated. So that was exciting too, just coming into the room with a bag full of costumes and letting everyone try stuff on. We also order costumes. If kids know what they want to be in advance, we can order something.”
In addition to costumes, staff did face paint and hair for any student who wanted it. Halloween costumes aren’t always sensory-friendly, so face paint can be an alternative for some students who aren’t bothered by it. McAvoy does say that she and other staff members were surprised by how well the students tolerated the costumes. “I remember staff saying, ‘These kids are tolerating things that we never would expect them to tolerate.’”
Trick-or-treating at the Academy is a fun experience for everyone. “Everyone loves trick-or-treat. The staff and the students. Almost everyone dresses up. Everyone gets really excited,” McAvoy adds.
Our kitchen staff work hard every year to provide a delicious, traditional Thanksgiving feast for our students. Turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, it’s all there! Staff even set up the tables so the meal can be enjoyed family-style.
“Thanksgiving at Brookside is a beautiful event to attend,” says Peter Lopenzina, the former Brookside program director and current director of development. “So many of the students have never had a big, formal meal like that. The cooks and staff out-do themselves every year and the kids have a great time.”
Holiday Wish Program
Because of finances and the relationship students have with their families, we know that not every Hillcrest student will receive gifts at Christmas from loved ones. We never want one of the children in our care to feel forgotten as they see their peers enjoy Christmas gifts from home.
That’s why we run our Holiday Wish Program every year, asking the Berkshire community to help us in making the holiday season brighter for these deserving kids.
Each child creates six wish cards with a staff member, each being worth $25 or less. Then community members take a card, or several, and include our students on their holiday shopping lists.
If you’d like to participate in the Holiday Wish Program this year, please stop by our office at 788 South St. in Pittsfield or contact our Director of Development, Peter Lopenzina, for more information.
Holiday Parties & Christmas Day
Every December, our campuses host a holiday party, complete with food, seasonal decor, performances or recognition of the students’ hard work in school, a visit from Santa, and a present from the Holiday Wish Program.
“We want to make sure the event is a time to celebrate the kids and their successes of the year, but also give them time to spend with their families,” says Ashley Kellogg, Highpoint’s program director. “There are no real expectations that day, except for the kids to enjoy the people who love them and spend time with them. We try to make it as normal a holiday celebration as possible. The kids are really invested in that. The kids serve food, some kids bake in the days ahead. They usually want to do a performance. After the celebration is over, we encourage families to stay and spend time with their kids. They can exchange gifts. We also invite Santa. Every kid and sibling that comes leaves with something from Santa.”
Kellogg also notes that Christmas Day is special as well. At noon, everyone enjoys a family-style Christmas turkey or ham dinner. Families are, of course, invited. She is also adamant that the presents from Santa Claus (donated through the Holiday Wish Program) are under the tree by 3 a.m. There are boys at Highpoint who believe in Santa and she wants to preserve that Christmas magic for them as long as possible.
New Year’s Eve
Last year, the staff and students at Brookside celebrated Brazilian New Year’s Eve—3 hours before the East Coast so the students could get to bed at a reasonable hour—in the gymnasium with lights, a ball drop, and dancing.
“Brookside’s New Year’s Eve party was actually all the students’ idea,” says Jessica Mooney, Brookside ITU’s assistant program director and former residential coordinator. “When they first asked if we could throw a party, I was a little nervous, but they wrote up a really well thought out proposal that seemed to cover all the bases. We only had to tweak the details a little to make it work. We looked into time zones with 9 pm in mind as a good curfew, which is where we came up with Rio de Janeiro.”
“The girls decorated the gym, which was already strung with white lights from our holiday party—thanks, George!!!—and they made a huge metallic ball that we lowered from the ceiling at ‘midnight.’ They made invitations, blew up tons of balloons, set up a snack bar, put together a playlist, and showed up in their best dress, and we partied all night, well… until 9pm. I think it might’ve been my favorite event in my decade of events here. The girls just kept thanking us for letting them do something that was ‘normal’ and trusting them to be able to handle it (show good boundaries and managing in that high stimulus environment). So, following up on that success, we are going to try again this year!”
The holidays are not easy for our students who spend them away from their loved ones, but our goal is to make sure they know that they are cared for and never forgotten.
And when you participate in our Holiday Wish Program, you send the same message. Thank you for your generosity!
If you’d like to give to Hillcrest students through the Holiday Wish Program this year, here are three ways to request your tag(s).