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Holiday cheer from the missus earns Jefferson Award

Sue Kielczewski’s holiday season has already begun. She and her daughter, Nicki, have discussed supplies needed for the 70 ornaments to be made and an ingredient list for more than 150 cookies to be baked.

Mrs. Santa Claus (Sue Kielczewski) danced with a student from Oak Harbor Middle School as part of last year’s annual holiday program.

Mrs. Santa Claus (Sue Kielczewski) danced with a student from Oak Harbor Middle School as part of last year’s annual holiday program.

There’s also the matter of freshening the red velvet dress with the white collar. Since it’s the trademark of “Mrs. Santa,” this is particularly important.

Kielczewski, an account clerk in the Student Accounts Office on Health Science Campus, is UT’s most recent Jefferson Awards “Champion” honoree. She was lauded for her service to a local school district and the Luther Home of Mercy, where crowds of young and old believers welcome her each December as Mrs. Santa Claus.

The 21-year employee said she began dressing as the yuletide’s famous missus to shake things up at family gatherings.

“It was getting boring, and Santa always looked so uncomfortable in his costume,” she said. “The retirees in the family really loved it.”

Her daughter, UT graduate and Oak Harbor Middle School teacher Nicki Kielczewski, pondered her mother’s offer to appear as Mrs. Santa during the school’s annual holiday music program. Anticipating a tough crowd in her daughter’s junior high pupils, Kielczewski won them over with her bubbly persona and presents that encourage the giving aspect of Christmas.

“I put things in the gift bag that remind them of what Christmas is all about,” Kielczewski said, “like a Charlie Brown tree and cutout hearts. I asked kids to write things they could do to help their families during the holiday season. My daughter had to ask for more hearts because they were writing on two or three of them!”

For the past three years, Kielczewski and her daughter have taken their holiday cheer on the road to Toledo’s Luther Home of Mercy, which houses retirees and mentally challenged adults. Nicki Kielczewski’s students accompany them as guests, presenting a music program and distributing the Kielczewskis’ handmade ornaments to residents.

Concerns regarding whether the students could cope with people of different circumstances were quickly dispelled. Although residents can be agitated and even aggressive when brought to Mrs. Santa, most eventually are calmed by the students’ songs and Kielczewski’s compassionate banter.

“If you could see the difference between when we come in and when we’re getting ready to leave,” she recalled, tearing slightly. “Making someone else feel good and the smiles we get make it worthwhile.”

Colleague Annette Johnson, room scheduler in the Office of the Registrar on Health Science Campus, is familiar with Kielczewski’s charitable work even though she hasn’t seen her co-worker in action.

“She gets so excited,” Johnson noted. “She talks about these events months beforehand and shows everyone her photos. She never even thinks of the work and time that goes into it. She puts so much love into this.”

The Oak Harbor students continue to feel that love even after Mrs. Claus has hung up her velvet dress. Once the assemblies and visit to Luther Home have ended, Kielczewski bakes dozens of cookies and writes a special e-mail complimenting the children’s behavior. Nicki Kielczewski reads that message as her students devour her mother’s treats.

“It’s my little way of spreading the holiday cheer,” Kielczewski said when asked why she engages in this community service. “I believe in Christmas, and it helps them believe in themselves.”

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