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Haven and Hope

Holidays at the O-School

For any student in a specialized educational environment – especially one like residential treatment – the winter holidays can be a complicated time.

Of course, there are the classic joys of the seasons – the lights, gifts, music, and delicious treats! But, as many of us know, there is another side to the season too…complicated relationships, difficult memories, seasonal depression, even feelings of social isolation.  In fact, it’s not just those in residential treatment who can sometimes get down during this, purportedly, joyful time of year.

For all these seasonal reasons – the good, the bad, and the ugly – the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (O-School) works to make the winter holidays as meaningful and joyful as possible – even for the most initially resistant members of our community!

As is the case with most aspects of our programming, the O-School staff members are extraordinarily planful during the winter holidays – making sure every student feels connected to the holiday spirit in a way that speaks to him/her/them.

For some students, the highlight of the season is decorating.  And, boy, do we decorate!  At the beginning of December, each year, the school holds a series of “Holiday Decorating Parties” – after school – to ensure that each student has the chance to decorate a common area of the school.  Each group of students is given a specific area to decorate – with staff help.  We have two Christmas trees that need ornaments and lights – one real and one artificial – and stockings, of course, are hung by the chimney with care.  At each Holiday Decorating Party, we sing and dance to holiday music, sip hot cocoa, and eat cookies.  Tis the season!

Of course, not all members of our community celebrate Christmas – so we are sure to include all winter-solstice holidays in our school decorations and celebrations – including Hanukah and Kwanzaa.  The lights from the menorah and kinara are always a beautiful addition to our celebratory season.

During Hanukah, staff and students love to celebrate at our annual Dreidel Party – during which the whole school plays dreidel for candy (it gets quite competitive for a game of luck!) and lights the menorah.  We also do a Hanukah Dinner, with potato latkes for all!  Each night of Hanukkah, in our beautiful school Living Room, the menorah is lit by students and staff and blessings are sung.

Without a doubt, though, the big event of the holiday season is the Holiday Lunch and Talent Show, which takes place the day before our annual winter break.  This is a day for our school to come together, celebrate the year that has passed, and think about our goals for the year to come.  Our wonderful Kitchen staff members create a beautiful, delicious, celebratory holiday lunch for the entire school.  We do not sit in our regular lunch tables but, rather, are given the chance to sit next to those with whom we do not normally eat.

After the meal – and some amazing dessert – we come together as a school to sing “The 12 Days of Christmas” – as we have done for years.  Our version is a bit unique, though – with each table taking a verse and putting a creative O-School spin on it.  This boisterous, silly, and joyful singalong represents the best of the O-School in 2019 – proud of our school’s remarkable history and traditions, but embracing our future with humor, enthusiasm, and goodwill.

After our Holiday Lunch, the whole school moves upstairs to the Gym – which is beautifully decorated as a winter-wonderland themed stage – for our annual Holiday Talent Show.  MC’ed by Student Council, this fantastic event gives those who want to express themselves through song, dance, poetry the chance to share their talent with the community – the ultimate gift!  Most years, there is also a ridiculous “staff act” – during which staff members charmingly embarrass themselves trying to do the newest meme-worthy dance – which is always appreciated by the students, as evidenced by their judgmental – but loving – laughter and applause.

At the end of the Talent Show, something special happens.  Staff members take out their keys and start to shake them, making the sounds of bells.  The kids look to the corner of the Gym, only to see one of their favorite staff members dressed as Santa, with a sack full of books!  Each year, the Board of Directors buys these books – always paired to each student’s interests and passions – and Santa distributes them to all the wonderful children of the O-School!  The kids always get a huge kick out of it – and the staff member who gets to play the part of Santa is always thrilled!

Following the school-day celebrations – the residential students come together for one more activity – a special pizza dinner, complete with karaoke caroling!

While the holidays can be tough, especially for those in residential treatment, the O-School staff members work tirelessly – as they always do – to help our students connect to the world – and the joy – around them.  Everyone experiences this season differently – and that’s ok.  The expectation is not to be 100% happy from November to February.  At the O-School, our goal, instead, is to use our holiday programming to enhance students’ connection to our school community, their family traditions, and the holiday season – whatever that means to him/her/them.

Author Ellie Badesch serves as Director of Compliance and Special Projects for the O-School. To learn more about the O-School’s residential and day programs, please visit our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s or BWC’s services, please visit our contact page or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.

  • Residential treatment


Haven and Hope is a destination for professionals, educators, and parents to learn from O-School experts about the issues facing children and adolescents with a variety of social-emotional challenges and/or autism, and how various aspects of the School’s 21st century therapeutic milieu provides a safe haven and a path to hope for those in need.

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