Forming neat lines outside the Magical Forest, about 75 first-grade students from Thomas and Fyfe elementary schools wait patiently with their arms folded and index fingers pressed lightly against their lips.
Teachers commend them on following directions, but Opportunity Village volunteers appear with gift bags and toy cars, and all composure is lost.
The students are instructed not to open the bags until they return to school, but it doesn’t stop their tiny, eager hands from making out the items through the sheer yellow bag.
“Many of these children come from disadvantaged backgrounds, so a lot of them are homeless or close to becoming,” said special events manager Charlene Blackstone. “Receiving a (gift bag) is probably the only Christmas present some will receive during the holiday season.”
The children spent the morning of Dec. 2 at Opportunity Village’s Magical Forest, 6300 W. Oakey Blvd., as part of Cheyenne’s Magical School Bus Tours program.
In its sixth year, the program is designed to celebrate the holiday season and teach disability awareness to kindergarten, first- and second-grade students attending the Clark County School District’s most at-risk schools.
“Not only do we get to share the spirit of the holidays with them, but we let them meet people with disabilities,” Blackstone said. “These kids are our future community leaders. The sooner we can get them introduced to disability awareness and acceptance, the better the future will be.”
During an opening ceremony, Blackstone explained to the children that Opportunity Village’s clients like to play, laugh and make new friends. She encouraged them to smile and shake their hands.
“Be kind to everyone” was the day’s mantra.
“Santa wanted me to ask you not only to be kind to everyone in the forest,” Blackstone told the children, “but also when you go back to school or go home or go shopping. Wherever you go, you must be kind to everyone.”
Out in the forest, the children spent the morning riding the Forest Express Passenger Train, Cheyenne’s Enchanted Carousel, Rudolph’s Raceway, Boris the Elf’s 3D Experience and visiting Santa Claus.
Isabella Sedano, 6, enjoyed riding in the raceway while her classmates cheered her on.
“It was really fun,” Sedano said. “I liked it.”
In order to run Cheyenne’s Magical School Bus Tours, the organization needs 40 to 50 volunteers to operate the attractions and manage the children. Sandy Marsh has been volunteering with the program for five years.
“The kids are what really make Christmas because they’re so excited to be here,” Marsh said. “I look forward to coming every day. You can just tear up interacting with some of the kids.”
Marsh said one of her favorite parts is watching kids visit Santa Claus.
“For some of them, this is their first time seeing Santa,” Marsh said. “To hear what they ask for is so touching. They don’t ask for a lot.”
At the end of the visit, the students receive gift bags with toys, treats, hygiene items, gloves, hats and more.
More than 6,000 students from 50 at-risk schools are expected to visit the Magical Forest through Dec. 22. The schools are selected based on their homelessness and free or reduced lunch rates.
Each student is funded by community sponsors who pay for the bus fare, Magical Forest entry and gift bag.
“Most of these kids don’t get to experience a fabulous holiday season because of their disadvantaged backgrounds,” Blackstone said. “We want to help them and give them a special and educational day.”
To donate or volunteer, visit opportunityvillage.org or call 702-259-3700.
Contact Spring Valley/Southwest View reporter Caitlyn Belcher at email@example.com or 702-383-0403.