Christmas Connection: Students bring Christmas to the Emerald Coast

Jessica Coker
Members of Fort Walton Beach High Schools Leadership program put the finishing touches on gifts for their Christmas Connection project. Padgett Lutrell, standing, Jaden Betts and Christian Brown tie bows on a tricycle for a deserving child.

Endless lines and long shopping lists didn’t slow down a group of youth this week as they connected with the community to spread a little holiday cheer.

"It really encompasses the spirit of Christmas," said Barbara Britt, the longtime Fort Walton Beach High School teacher. "Wal-Mart has to open up extra lanes for us to check out!"

But she is not talking about her personal holiday shopping; she's talking about the Leadership program Christmas Connection she spearheads at the high school.

Currently in its 15th year, the Fort Walton Beach Christmas Connection program serves a large area of the Emerald Coast — including all of Okaloosa County, 30A, all the way past Navarre and onto Highway 87.

Recommended by guidance counselors and youth counselors, the students are given the information of families and children who might need a little help during the holidays. After contacting the family, the Leadership members begin securing everything that the family will need and want.

During the holiday season the Vikings provide a number of goods and services to both children and families in local communities.

Fourteen days of food are included in these goods — breakfast, lunch and dinner; turkey; perishable items — milk, eggs, butter and bread. Britt tells The Log that each student brings about 10 bags of groceries.

For those who don't have a Christmas tree, the club is prepared to supply that as well.

If needed, the Leadership program also provides help with utilities, rent and other household bills.

Delivering the wrapped toys to the excited children is the best part of the entire Leadership experience, according to Britt. "It's really all about the children."

In addition to the toys the children are given, if a child asks for a bicycle, one is supplied to him or her.

With the help of the community, the Christmas Connection program has been able to take care of a record number of people this year — 115 families and 322 children — a huge jump compared to the five to seven families that were helped when the organization was formed years ago.

With Thursday being the last day of school before Christmas break, the students spent hours shopping, wrapping and delivering gifts to homes around the area.

Twelve-year-old Sebastian, 11-year-old Zach, 6-year-old Niko and 5-year-old Danila of Destin were getting ready for bed when they got a knock on their door Thursday night from the Viking Leadership club.

The children laughed and played while the students carried in box after box of food and wrapped gifts.

Among the students delivering the gifts was Noah Birlingmair, a junior at Fort Walton Beach who has been in the Leadership program for two years.

The students talked to the four children about Christmas, Santa Claus and what they were asking him for this year.

"I want a skateboard," said Danila, the lone lady of the bunch.

After his sister’s comment, Niko piped-up, adding that he too would like a skateboard for Christmas — "or an electric scooter."

Dressed as Santa Claus to deliver gifts to the Destin family, Birlingmair and the other members posed for pictures and played with the children before saying goodbye.

The children promised that they had been good this year, securing that there would not be any coal wrapped up in the boxes the students delivered.

To learn more about the Fort Walton Beach Leadership Christmas Connection program please visit