MUSCATINE — The dining room at Geneva Golf and Country Club was full of students' excited chatter about plans for the upcoming holidays, winter break, and favorite Christmas movies.

For Emma McDaniel, getting together with her friends to celebrate the upcoming holiday means a lot. As an eighth-grader at Central Middle School, Emma attended the United Way of Muscatine's Kids First annual Christmas Party for 60 local youth her age.

"It's nice because I don't really get a chance to go out and do things like this," Emma said. "So, when I'm out here with all my friends, it's like, I feel like I have a life."

Emma, a bubbly 14-year-old, was all smiles talking about the groups she's involved with at school, how she likes to sing, draw and dance, and maintained her positivity even as she was describing some of the ways her life has been difficult.

"When I was little, my dad left me," she said "And my mom doesn't have anything to do with me, so, when I'm out here doing things like this it makes me happy. It just makes my whole day."

This is the fourth year youth from both Central and West middle schools were treated to a three-course meal, a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus sponsored by Bayer, formerly Monsanto, and gifts at the party.

"Every year gets better and better," United Way Program Manager Nichole Sorgenfrey said. "It's just a lot of fun. It's 60 kids in our community that might not have a Christmas."

Sorgenfrey runs the Kids First Fund and said because middle school students are in a transition from being considered 'little kids' but also aren't in high school yet, sometimes they get forgotten.

"It's a difficult time for them so, this is a great way for us to let them know it's going to be OK."

This was the fourth year the party was held with the country club sponsoring lunch, and the third year it was hosted at the club. Sorgenfrey worked with counselors Jonathan Schreiner at West and Troy Kulland at Central to collect a list of three items each student needs and would work to provide one or two of them. The total for each youth's gifts is around $30 to $40.

 Kids First Fund also provides food, school supplies, coats, shoes and personal hygiene items to children in need throughout the year, requiring $15,000 to $20,000 in donations per year to support the programs. Sorgenfrey said 100 percent of donations made to the fund go to the children it supports.

Kulland said when people donate to United Way, their dollars go to fund "something very powerful" such as the party.

He said the students will be talking about the event when they come back to school after break. Even students that are now in high school will tell him what they remember from the day. 

"This is something that is becoming more of a staple," Kulland said of the party. "I think we're blessed in Muscatine. Most places don't do this. And I think this is what makes Muscatine a little special."

A participant in sports including basketball, track and swimming, Emma is also a member of service-learning groups SLG, Skittles and Ricochet at the school. She said she joined those groups because she likes helping the community and will do whatever she can.

"When I'm at school, I like going to school because I have friends that care about me and all the teachers are so supportive of me," she said. "I mean, without them, I wouldn't really want to be here today. So, they make my life easier, to be honest."

She said she almost gave up on singing, but music teacher Tristan Tolle gave her the confidence to continue. Her favorite song to sing is "Concrete Angel" by country artist Martina McBride because she said it describes her life. 

"It's about a little girl who got abused and mistreated and she got to the point where she committed suicide," she said. "That's the point where I was a couple years ago, but the teachers helped me and I'm doing better now. I think being in all those groups is my way of giving back to the teachers for what they've done for me."

For C.J. Palmer, the party was "a great opportunity."

"Not many of us who go here get to experience this," he said.

The meal was also a new experience for the group he said because it was different from the way most people eat at home. 

"So, today is pretty great," he said. "It's pretty awesome."

Sorgenfrey visited each table to help students with dining etiquette including washing their hands, telling them to place a napkin in their lap and talk about how the different flatware is used.

"I think it's great," Schreiner said of the event. "We get to see the kids interact with each other outside of school, and we were talking about why there are two forks and those kinds of things."

He said support from the community is also great. Members of the Kids First committee were also among the attendees. Sorgenfrey said the party was also a good experience for them because they could interact with the children they help to support through the fund.

"It's fantastic to see the community work to support the kids in these chances and these things that they get," he said.

Getting to talk to Santa wasn't bad either. C.J. said that was one of the highlights of the party, and he asked for a new shirt. He also got to share the new experiences with his younger brother, Trey. The boys are both students at West where C.J. is involved in the Gifted and Talented program, advanced placement English language arts and soccer. He said he also wants to run track — sprints — and participate in theater. He mentioned that the school musical will be "Aladdin Junior," and he hopes to play Genie.

A self-described "early bird," C.J. said he was up early the morning of the party. He said he was excited for it and "time was taking too long."

"It's pretty cool," he said. "It's not every day I get to be here."

Youth were vocal of their appreciation for the event that Kulland said is an experience others might take for granted.

"We tend to forget that when Christmas is coming, we're looking forward to it, but for many of them here, Christmas is not what we imagine it to be," Kulland said. "So we're giving them a taste of what Christmas can be."

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