Students help Christmas Connection fulfill mission of making holiday brighter for local children

Christmas Connection coordinator Marilyn Chamberlin (right) and WCU student Tabitha Moore sort through clothing and toys that will be distributed to Jackson County children.

Christmas Connection coordinator Marilyn Chamberlin (right) and WCU student Tabitha Moore sort through clothing and toys that will be distributed to Jackson County children.

It’s 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning as Western Carolina University first-year honors students fill Room 214 in the Forsyth Building.

Looking around the room, there is a group with laptops open, editing a newly launched website. Several students are scrolling through social media to increase their client’s Facebook following, and a few are heading out the door with cameras and Santa Claus costumes. This is not a typical class that just listens to lectures, takes notes and completes quizzes, but one that involves experiential learning in which students are diving straight in and enhancing the marketing, writing and social media skills they already have to benefit a real client.

Their client is the Christmas Connection of Jackson County, a nonprofit that provides Christmas gifts for children of low-income families. The Christmas Connection, which is completely volunteer-run, has been serving the community for more than 27 years. This grassroots organization works with individuals, families, schools and social services professionals across Jackson County to purchase gifts for more than 1,000 children each year. As this is an immense task, the Christmas Connection is constantly seeking support with various aspects, including generating public awareness, raising donations and purchasing and sorting toys.

Marilyn Chamberlain is an associate professor of sociology at WCU and Christmas Connection coordinator. Over the summer, Chambers approached Julie Johnson-Busbin, WCU professor of marketing, to ask for help. Johnson-Busbin felt the “Facebook Generation Marketing” and “Introduction to Professional Sales” classes she was teaching would be the perfect outlet for students to apply the knowledge and skills gained in the classroom to real-world work. The classes would assist the Christmas Connection in increasing its overall awareness in the community and generating increased donations. As a result, two service-learning projects arose.

Julie Johnson-Busbin (center), WCU professor of marketing, and students Hannah Noel and Wesley Rogers discuss the work done by students to develop a website for the Christmas Connection of Jackson County.

Julie Johnson-Busbin (center), WCU professor of marketing, and students Hannah Noel and Wesley Rogers discuss the work done by students to develop a website for the Christmas Connection of Jackson County.

In the “Facebook Generation Marketing” class, students divided into various task forces based on skills or interests in order to meet their goals of creating an online presence and increasing donations. Computer science majors and aspiring writers set out to create a website for the Christmas Connection. Those with skills in the social media sphere developed Twitter and Instagram accounts for the organization and revitalized its Facebook page. Students with backgrounds in photography planned various photo shoots to gather content to post on social media. A billboard, placed in downtown Sylva, and an upgraded logo were developed by students who are adept in graphic design.

Students seeking to gain experience in traditional marketing engaged in various guerrilla marketing tactics and fundraising efforts to draw attention to the cause. They also coordinated events such as the Teddy Bear Toss, a competition in which stuffed animals are tossed into buckets for prizes and then collected for children, at the WCU men’s basketball game on Nov. 16. To stay on track, one student served as project manager and organized the class calendar based on events and project due dates. Through this experience, students said they see this not as a class, but as an opportunity to gain marketing experience, reach out beyond WCU’s walls and serve the local community.

Students in the “Introduction to Professional Selling” worked toward the goal of increasing donations. As they learned techniques in class, they applied their newfound knowledge by going to local businesses in the community and asking for donations. They also collaborated with the “Facebook Generation Marketing” class on the creation and maintenance of the website and social media.

The participating students acquired many marketing and workplace skills through this project. More importantly, though, they discovered the needs of their own community. “It helps us see a deeper level of the community we live in,” said Catherine Dutour, a freshman and member of the “Facebook Generation Marketing” class. Perhaps this is the greatest learning outcome of all. Through this new perspective, the students are better understanding the community around them, and how they as individuals can make an impact in others’ lives.

To learn more about the project or to become involved in Christmas Connection this holiday season, visit http://christmasconnectionofjc.org.

This article was authored by Ashley Johnson, a WCU freshman enrolled in the “Facebook Generation Marketing” class.