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Students surprised by party

December 22, 2011 By CRAIG HAUPERT Leader Publications

BENTON HARBOR - Students from Cedar Lane Alternative School of Niles got a big surprise during their regular trip to Circle C Stable Thursday morning in Benton Harbor. Instead of hanging out with the horses as they normally do, the students found themselves hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree they picked out and cut down. Each of the 15 students got presents, a stocking filled with goodies and Christmas cookies to decorate. "I had no idea we were coming out here for this, so it was a really nice surprise," Cedar Lane student Monica Salceda said. The surprise Christmas party was provided by volunteers that work with the students for Reaching for the Reins, a community outreach program started by Cedar Lane five years ago. Twenty students a year have the opportunity to visit a local stable where they learn how to work with horses and teach what they've learned to a group of special needs students. Through working closely with Cedar Lane students, the volunteers realized many of the students were unable to experience Christmas because of hard economic times. As a group, they decided to throw them a party. "We wanted to make a family-type Christmas for them," said Circle C Stable owner Cindy Nimtz, who provided a tree from her property for the students cut down and decorate. Gina Mason, education director of Curious Kids Museum, along with several of her co-workers, decided to adopt Reaching for the Reins students as their Christmas holiday project. Mason volunteers almost every Thursday with Reaching for the Reins. "I call these guys my Thursday kids and I brag about them all the time," Mason said. "They are just a great group and I'm glad we were able to do something for them." Another volunteer, Cal Bennett, helped the students find and cut down the tree. "At first nobody wanted to saw it so I got down and started sawing," Bennett said. "As soon as I got going they said they wanted to do it. I think they just needed a little guidance." Students gathered in Nimtz's basement where they decorated hundreds of cookies and made ornaments to place on the Christmas tree. "This is the first time I've ever encountered a real Christmas tree. I didn't even know (Nimtz) grew them out here," Salceda said. Cedar Lane student Anthony Boyce spent some of his time constructing handmade Christmas cards for his family. For one card, he used colored thumbprints to create Santa in a sleigh being pulled by reindeer. "It was nice that we were able to make cards because I don't have any money to buy them," Boyce said. "I think my family is going to like them. Volunteers pooled together their resources to buy sweatshirts and make the cookies, Cedar Lane teacher Tara Carlsen said.