Members of Yale’s varsity athletic teams have recently begun taking group shopping trips to Target and Wal-Mart stores, leaving with bags full of jackets, hats and toys. But the students are not buying presents for themselves or their relatives — they plan to donate the gifts to low-income families in New Haven.

These donations are the central aspect of the Holiday Gift Giving Initiative, initially organized by the Yale Athletic Department’s Community Outreach Committee. For more than four years, the committee has sent Yale athletes to mentor and tutor students at Vincent E. Mauro Elementary School, a public school located close to the Yale Bowl, as part of the “Bulldog Buddies” program. Last winter, committee chair Brynne Kennedy ’06 expanded the program to include a special holiday activity. She encouraged Yale sports teams to “adopt” children of low-income families associated with the Mauro School for holiday gifts.

Kennedy said she had always participated in holiday gift giving in high school, which gave her the idea to organize something similar at Yale.

“It’s a really good way for teams not usually involved in community service to get involved and help other people enjoy the holiday season,” said Kennedy, who is also a varsity gymnast.

John Petersen ’06, captain of the heavyweight crew team, said the holiday gift giving initiative requires each team to collect money, buy gifts, wrap the gifts, and help deliver them.

“With 40 guys on the team, it could add up to a good Christmas for all the families,” Petersen said.

To start the program, Kennedy said she contacted Vincent Mauro’s assistant principal and outreach co-ordinator Kerry Courcey. Courcey said she wrote notes to the school’s teachers asking for names of low-income families in their classes. Once the selections were made, each team that volunteered received the names, sexes, sizes and wish-lists of their assigned family members.

Courcey and Kennedy both said the Holiday Gift Giving Initiative has been very successful since its inception. Courcey said the school is grateful for its partnership with Yale. She said many children wrote thank-you notes and eagerly discussed their new toys in the halls of their school.

According to Courcey, the athletes never meet their families. The gifts are delivered to the school, and from there Vincent Mauro’s administration delivers them to the families.

“The kids primarily think the gifts are from Santa Claus,” Courcey said. “One boy even went around school saying, ‘I got a Razor scooter from Santa!'”

But Kennedy said the initiative has been somewhat rushed in the past. Kennedy said she remembers that some teams had to drop out last-minute due to imperfect planning. To improve the program for this year, Kennedy and David Silberstein ’08, a student liaison between Vincent Mauro and the Yale Athletic Department, tried to notify their fellow athletes about the program early in the holiday season. Kennedy said 14 teams are involved in the program this year.

Silberstein, a member of the football team, said that despite his team’s large size, most of the players made significant contributions to the program. In addition to the toys and clothes they bought at Target this week, Silberstein said the team is also trying to give the students Yale football hats and tickets for next season.

“It’s tough to mobilize such a large group, but the team did a pretty good job,” he said.

Courtney McNally ’06, a former lacrosse player who is currently a public school intern at Vincent Mauro, said she thinks the Holiday Gift Giving Initiative is a good way for Yale students to get out of the Yale “bubble” and interact with city residents.

“I think [the children’s] experience of the holidays is different from ours,” she said. “I don’t think Yale students have a lot of exposure to … poverty.”

Courcey said the elementary school students in the program and their families also enjoyed and benefited from several other activities planned by Yale athletes, including a birthday party for Dr. Seuss and a babysitting program during Parent-Teacher Organization meetings. She said she hopes the students will continue visiting throughout the year.