The holidays are often associated with presents, and retailers have been pushing this message for months. But for the Ashley Hall community, this time of year is not about receiving. It’s about giving.

Every December for over two decades, Ashley Hall has partnered with Chicora Elementary School in North Charleston to spread the joy of the season with its 330 students. Known as the Chicora Gift-Giving Project, this tradition is marked by various holiday assemblies throughout campus and the donation of hundreds of gifts from the School community. But this year, students were reminded that this Ashley Hall tradition is not one of collecting gifts, but one of human connection, thanks to a very special visit by Chicora educator and alumna Elizabeth Blackman ’25.

On November 30, Blackman returned to campus to speak with Upper School students about the Chicora Gift-Giving Project, beginning with how much it has grown since her time as a student at Ashley Hall. “[The Chicora Gift-Giving Project] has changed tremendously over the years in the best way,” Blackman said. “I remember bringing our gifts and it would be one Barbie doll or a soccer ball. Now there are coats, shoes, anything that you can imagine being brought in to give to our students at Chicora.”

Today, donations are specifically curated to meet the needs of individual students at Chicora. Blackman works with classroom teachers beginning in November to build a wishlist for every child in grades 1-5. From clothing and toothbrushes to toys and books, donations are then collected and organized into special red Santa bags labeled with a child’s name that will be taken home at Christmas.

During her visit, Blackman gave students not only a better understanding of the gift-giving program, but, perhaps most importantly, of her students. “Over 90% of our students in first through fifth grades are living at or below poverty level,” shared Blackman, who spearheads the Chicora Gift-Giving Project with Ashley Hall Board of Trustee member and former Early School Director Dana Van Hook. “So they have some struggles, but when they come to school, it’s a different time to shine.”

Blackman went on to share just how much students at Chicora are indeed shining, noting that test scores throughout all grade levels have improved, and the school has recently allocated a new educator to support newly identified gifted and talented students at Chicora. Academics aside, Blackman shared just how similar her students are to those at Ashley Hall, whether it be a love for music or passion for becoming a leader, to highlight the true spirit of the season which is connecting with one another.

“The students of Ashley Hall and Chicora are not so different,” Blackman said. “We’re connected by dreams, by hopes, and we’re connected by the inherent worth of ourselves. Each child, regardless of their background, is full potential. And it’s our responsibility to nurture and support that potential. So in the spirit of the season, let us not only provide material gifts, but the gift of understanding compassion and empathy and kindness.”

Here are a few more powerful messages Blackman shared with students this holiday season:

Donations to Chicora Go Far Beyond Gifts

“I wanted to talk a little bit about the bags and that go to our students. The bags not only offer gifts, but they offer security and consistency for some of our students. Security and consistency are two things that a lot of Chicora students do not have at home. So every year, especially the ones who’ve been there since first grade, they look forward to these bags. They know what is coming. These bags mean more than just a toy.”

The Similarities Between Us

“I want to share some remarkable similarities that exist between our students and you, despite the apparent differences that you may have in your daily lives. At Ashley Hall and Chicora, you’re going to see students hard at work, excelling in some areas, struggling in others. You’re gonna see art displayed. You’re going to hear singing. I heard the chorus in here earlier. It was great. We have a chorus as well. And you’re also going to hear instruments. While you might hear violins here at Ashley Hall, at Chicora, you would hear steel drums. And in both the hallways at Ashley Hall and Chicora, you’re going to hear laughter, see friendships bloom, and see the curiosity that fuels the pursuit of knowledge. These are some of the universal traits that go beyond the boundaries of socioeconomic status.”

A Growing Community of Leaders

“Our biggest thing right now is something called Chicora Changers. It started last year and these students were selected because of their leadership skills, their great behavior, and their major potential that they have. So these students work to provide community service within our community within our school. They have to get a certain amount of hours, and then at the end of the year, they are rewarded with a trip to Disney.”