FARGO, N.D. • When Houston Engineering Inc. heard that students at a local elementary school were in need of some help this year, its employees decided to play the role of Santa’s helpers.

Employees of the engineering firm on Wednesday delivered a truckload of gifts to students at L.E. Berger Elementary in West Fargo. In total, about 85 students were provided gifts from the company this holiday season.

Additional students were helped by school staff through its traditional Giving Tree, in which employees select a child’s name off the tree and buy a gift for the student.

L.E. Berger, which has the second highest free and reduced lunch rate of West Fargo schools, historically has students whose families need a little boost during the holidays, according to Principal Brian Peterson. The need was greater this year because of the hardships caused by the pandemic.

Peterson said school staff did an incredible job with the Giving Tree, providing gifts for about 140 students. But the area nonprofit organizations that usually help, such as Toys for Tots and Great North Pole, also had a tougher year and had to reduce their assistance this season.

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Peterson said the school surveyed parents to determine how much help was needed. The response, he told Prairie Business, was overwhelming.

“We were just really wowed by the stories that were coming back and the struggles that families are going through,” he said.

Families in some instances are struggling to pay their bills, but want to make sure their kids have a nice Christmas. “So really, the stories we were getting back from the survey were overwhelming,” Peterson said. “That's when Houston stepped in to help out in an awesome way.”

When Houston Engineering heard about the effort, and after it was brought up in a team meeting, employees were excited about helping the students.

“We didn't require it, we just said if you're interested then sign up,” said Rick Gunderson, senior project manager at Houston. “I was really afraid that we were going to have a bunch of children leftover without sponsors to go out and look for gifts, but we actually had a waiting list for employees to become a shopper.”

The company provided $100 gift cards to team members to spend on each of the 85 students. Gunderson said employees focused on students’ wish lists first, then added gifts as they could, such as clothing and more essential items. They also made sure to buy foodstuffs to provide meals to the families.

“We encouraged our staff to do whatever they felt was in their hearts, basically,” he said, noting employees are not bragging about what they purchased for the students, but are instead enjoying the quiet sense of knowing they have helped.

“It’s not about the recognition,” Gunderson said. “This is about being involved in a philanthropic effort to help.”

For Houston, it all happened fairly quickly. Team members decided to purchase, wrap and deliver the presents in the space of about a week. And, since employees this year were not attending conferences and marketing meetings the way they normally would have done, using money for students and their families seemed the perfect way to spend it.

About 360 students in grades K-5 attend the elementary school, Peterson said, and with the contributions from Houston and school staff members, about half of the students were served. The school plans to use funds from PTA and being a Title One school to help the school’s remaining students.

Peterson said the school plans to distribute the gifts to families this Friday and next Monday and Tuesday.

“This just kind of came out of the blue,” Gunderson said, explaining the company often donates to Make-A-Wish, United Way and the Ronald McDonald House, but giving to the school was something new. “It really opened our eyes to just the hardships going on in our community right now. … I think part of the silver lining of COVID is we're just a lot more aware of the human condition. Everybody has slowed down a bit and we kind of know what it's like out there in the community.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com