Highlands student overcomes father’s loss to help needy children at Christmas | TribLIVE.com
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Brian C. Rittmeyer
Marissa Callender

Last year, Marissa Callender was wrapping hundreds of donated toys for needy children when her father, Tom Callender , unexpectedly died of a heart attack at the age of 39.

Grieving from the loss, she did not stop.

“I wanted to finish it,” Marissa said. “A big thing my parents always taught me is Christmas isn’t always about receiving — it’s more about the giving aspect.

“It almost felt like, you know what it felt like to be alone and hurt at Christmas,” she said. “I wanted to be sure kids didn’t feel like that.”

She wants to be sure no kid feels that way this year, too.

Marissa, 17, a senior at Highlands High School, is kicking off her second “Holiday 365” toy drive at her school’s homecoming game Oct. 5.

“I just believe that, every day, that some kids go through a struggle,” she said. “On Halloween, Christmas, Thanksgiving — those are the days they get to feel special. I want to be able to create this holiday year ‘round for those children.”

Students and adults who give a new toy or clothing item at the gate will get free admission to the game, which starts at 7 p.m. that night at Golden Rams stadium. One ticket will be given per item donated.

For students and faculty, collection boxes will be placed in the high school office. Parents will be able to donate items at the parent-teacher conferences on Nov. 12.

The public can participate by taking new toys and clothes to a donation box the Highlands Administrative Center, which is at the back of the high school, 1500 Pacific Ave. in Harrison, district spokeswoman Jennifer Goldberg said.

Collections will continue through Dec. 17.

Marissa is the eldest of Tom and Selena Callender’s five children.

She came up with doing a toy drive for her Girl Scout Gold Award . Last year, was a test run to see how it went; this year is for the award.

The 170 toys and clothing items she collected last year went to needy children on “angel trees” at her school district’s elementary schools. Teachers select anonymous children from the trees and give gifts to them.

With the amount of donations she had, Marissa was able to give one or two toys to every child from the trees, based on what they wanted and liked. She gave the leftovers to the Alle-Kiski Hope Center.

She’s hoping to get enough donations this year to give two gifts to every child. But she doesn’t know how many children in need there will be, or how many donations she’ll receive.

After graduation next year, Marissa plans to major in biochemistry at college — she likes Duquesne University, but is looking at others. She plans to go to medical school and become a pediatric oncologist.

She was happy with last year’s toy drive. She didn’t get to meet any of the kids, but did see how teachers reacted to what she had done.

“I was excited about doing it. My dad was really proud of me,” she said. “It was a very rewarding thing to do.”

Brian Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, brittmeyer@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BCRittmeyer.

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