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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Kamilah McClendon, Project Ready coordinator, hugs Damarion Lundy, 9, during a Christmas party Friday at the Fort Wayne Urban League.

Alumni group parties with kids in poverty

The children looked over their Bingo cards expectantly, waiting for the first number to be called.

“I got it! I got it!” screamed a boy, thinking he had won.

As the caller explained it was only the first number, the other children – many of whom appeared to have never played Bingo before, either – laughed and helped themselves to another cookie.

It was a moment of laughter and joy in lives with far too few of either.

This was not the first Christmas party for the kids in the after-school programs at the Fort Wayne Urban League this year, but officials say they need all they can get: The area surrounding the campus at Hanna and Creighton streets has been marred by shockingly high poverty rates, absentee landlords, vacant houses and vacant lots. Before attempts at urban renewal began, half of the families there were headed by a single mother, and one in four adults was unemployed.

Lauren Caggiano knows she can’t change that. But she knows from experience that you can at least bring hope.

Caggiano is a 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, where she majored in journalism and French. Since the 1960s, the Catholic and Marianist campus has celebrated Christmas on Campus, in which nearly 1,000 inner-city children are invited to campus to enjoy a live Nativity, tree lighting, Santa Claus’ arrival and a carnival, plus dozens of smaller events.

“Campus becomes a winter wonderland for a few hours,” Caggiano said. And the Dayton Alumni Association encourages its chapters across the country to do the same thing, tailored to local needs.

Caggiano used to work with Community Action of Northeast Indiana next door to the Urban League and had a friend who worked there.

“They have a great facility,” Caggiano said. “So why reinvent the wheel?”

And so, five years ago, the Dayton Alumni began hosting a Christmas party for the kids at the Fort Wayne Urban League, trying to bring a bit of Christmas on Campus here. Caggiano chairs the event.

“The kids of the neighborhood like it, (the alumni) like it and we like it,” said J.J. Foster, Urban League’s director of youth services. “It’s something we know we can count on, and more importantly, the kids know they can look forward to it.”

Being able to count on something is too rare for children in poverty, Foster said.

“A lot of stuff around here is here one minute and gone the next,” he said. “This has been something steady.”

And giving means as much to the Dayton alumni as it does to the kids receiving it.

“There hasn’t been a year where I’ve felt the kids don’t appreciate it,” Caggiano said. “And just that one moment where a kid says ‘Thank you’ makes it all worth it. You can tell this is a big deal to them.”

The party includes a visit with Santa, cookie decorating and a balloon artist. Santa gives each child a book.

“We’ve done a craft in the past, but that was kind of messy,” Caggiano said.

While the Urban League is grateful to the Dayton alumni for the party, the alumni are grateful to the Urban League for what they do the other 364 days of the year.

“These kids need someone to look out for them year round,” Caggiano said. “The Urban League does a great job of serving the needs of that neighborhood.”