Best Wishes

Behind the scenes at the biggest rally of the year

Reese Gardner, Student Life Editor

Finn Albano/Special to the Bear Witness

At 6 a.m. Dec. 10 as student leaders walked in sweatpants and layers of sweatshirts and flannel — it’s a themed day, but it’s also fitting for the cozy vibe that they’re aiming for in the return of the 11th annual Winter Wishes. Some students even have blankets and coffee. For one of the biggest days of the year for ASB and for Branham, it’s peacefully calm.

It’s dark outside, but the lights in the ASB room shine bright. The room smells of donuts and there is a quiet buzz of conversations around the room. Moments later, junior Justine Dreux starts to draw the service class’s attention to the front of the room.

Winter Wishes ground zero

Dreux, a member of the ASB Service class, is in charge of ASB’s biggest event of the year. Though planning starts in the summer, the morning’s work is the culmination of hundreds of hours of work in meetings, funding gifts and organizing community support.

Branham was ground zero for the Winter Wishes rally in 2011, which was then called Make a Wish Rally. It’s seen numerous transitions. What once began as an intimate event that was able to fit all students comfortably in the gym has morphed into a giant rally for 1,950 students that fills nearly every seat in the football stadium.

Organizers of the event have played with several formats to accommodate for the growing number of students, from splitting the event to two rallies to holding the rallies in the quad.

Winter Wishes took on visiting 12 students’ homes at the height of school closures in December 2020. ASB hosted a drive-in-themed movie night a month later to share stories from that event.

Back to school

Finn Albano/Special to the Bear Witness

Dreux and the ASB team’s plan on the morning of the rally was to start a runthrough at 8 a.m. and attempt to have two full runthroughs of the event, and preferably off-script.

The team barely got through a full rehearsal on the field, and ASB members were visibly cranky — it was a cold morning.

As students began moving baskets and items into the field, some notice graffiti throughout the school, a mix of cryptic symbols and anti-Semitic references. Hillman gets on the phone with Principal Cheryl Lawton and the custodial staff, who with the help of early bird juniors Zach Van Gelden and Colin Paik clean up and paint over the graffiti before most students even noticed it was there.

Back in the ASB room, senior treasurer Nico Morrone and Justine Dreux explain jobs and assignments to student sections.

The decor group heads to the cafeteria with a singular pair of scissors and two rolls of duct tape, while other groups like tech gather materials and begin to set up the field, placing down speakers and lining them up to the mic at the middle of the football field.

Community support

To fund Winter Wishes, which has a budget upwards of $10,000 to run, student fundraising is essential. Each of the nine service groups, divided as to have one “big” rally wish, has to go on two successful fundraising expeditions seeking out community sponsorships and donations. They also organize the smaller fundraisers with See’s Candy and the book donation event back in November.

The goodwill the ASB has earned from previous Winter Wishes rallies has reaped benefits in gaining new donors.

“We’re very fortunate that we have a lot of community support,” said Activities Director Christina Hillman. “So usually, it’s not an issue for us to just kind of increase our budget more than we had intended.”

Trust in each other

Finn Albano/Special to the Bear Witness

Dreux said that the Service group also knows how to get things done by helping each other to solve problems. Each team has its own lead and a somewhat set budget. If there are issues with ordering items or if the team goes over budget, the issue usually is resolved before it reaches her.

“They usually take care of whatever needs to be done,” Dreux said.

Such confidence in the teamwork comes from much pre-planning and coordination, and trust built from hours of work and the coordination of tasks, from interviewing potential gift recipients to updating spreadsheets on the status of budgets.

“There’s a basis of trust and by trust I mean, the executive team trusts Hillman and Hillman trusts the executive team,” Dreux said, “The class trusts the executive team and the class trusts Hillman, and Hillman trusts the class to trust each other.”

Hillman feels likewise, saying despite initial fears of moving the rally to the football field from the more intimate school gym, especially after having a pandemic Winter Wishes, students rose to the challenge.

“Everyone put a lot of thought, effort, and energy into making sure that things ran very smoothly and that they were really on top of everything,” she said. “They really put a level of care into everything that I think makes a really successful program.”

Special deliveries

Finn Albano/Special to the Bear Witness

Just a few hours before the start of the rally, as leaders run through their first and only rehearsal, Activities Director is making phone calls trying to locate the delivery of the matching flannels for the ASB crew.

Meanwhile, students empty the ASB room and now occupy the field, putting up posters, moving furniture, and setting up tents for gift distribution. As a football field rally is a first for the team, they set up two tents tents to provide a place to transition between gifts, and to store away unused items.

Baskets are laid out in advance, with placeholder boxes for the more expensive items such as iPads and laptops, partly to deter theft, and partly because some items, such as the iPad Pro for senior Audrey Nguyen, the Bear Witness artistic editor, have not arrived yet.

Students in the tents are equipped with walkie talkies, queueing up items and posters describing gifts during the rally.

Moments before the end of the run-through and before the first wave of students arrive for the rally, Hillman receives a call from the office informing her that the flannel shirts have been delivered. She rushes on her golf cart with the surprise red flannel shirts for her students.

It was a small moment of chaos in an otherwise calm and busy morning.