Houseparenting at Milton Hershey School through the Holidays
By Ashley Hoover, MHS Houseparent
The holidays are upon us once again. The only place on Earth that can match the magic, beauty, and bustle of the North Pole at Christmas is Milton Hershey School’s picturesque campus. From light displays to holiday concerts, cookie decorating parties, and Milton’s Christmas Workshop, the entire campus is abuzz with the joy of the season.
The student home is no exception to the joy and bustle of the season. Like anyone, we as houseparents have the choice to allow December to be a stressful month and overcommitment, or we can choose to see it as four, brief weeks to engage in moments of giving and celebrating with the people around us. I have the honor of watching these special moments through the eyes of my students—and let me tell you, there is nothing more magical than that.
The entire MHS community engages our students with fun traditions during the holidays. However, my favorite part is creating special traditions and memories for the students in our student home. Some of the traditions my husband, Joe, and I have instilled in our student home have stemmed from our own families growing up—warm sticky buns wafting through the student home on the day we celebrate Christmas, secret Santa gift exchanges, decorations in the home, and so much more.
Other traditions, we’ve been intentional to begin with our students. Decorating the student home together and putting up the Christmas tree on the day everyone returns from Thanksgiving break is one of my favorites. Our secret Santa gift exchange, is another tradition we began on purpose to engage our students in the holidays.
Over the years though, some of our most cherished holiday traditions weren’t started on purpose but arose on accident. A great example was when we thought it would be nice for each student to have their own ornament on the Christmas tree. My husband and I took our 12 high-schoolers to the store, and each student chose an ornament they felt reflected them. Now, we make a yearly ornament shopping trip for our new students. Our tree, which was once comprised of generic ornaments, is now solely comprised of student ornaments and we are rapidly losing space.
While this wasn’t something I planned, it’s a beautiful reminder of all the students who passed through our student home and all that are yet to come.
The culmination of holiday joy, chaos, and accidental traditions is our annual Christmas camping trip. In August 2016, I went to reserve one of the school’s three cabins—which offers a camping experience for students and houseparents, fully equipped with all the camping amenities you need. It sounded exciting and fun, except that we ended up with a weekend in December. We were scratching our heads trying to figure out how to make the most of the cabin in wintertime. It dawned on us—it would be our Christmas celebration.
Every year since then, we pack a Christmas tree, lights, and all the gifts and head to Camp Spartan Meadows. There is good food, cookie baking, a polar plunge, and Christmas movies on a makeshift screen. The best part is it ends up being the weekend each year that we all talk about the most.
Being a houseparent is busy and challenging when there isn’t the excitement of the holidays inching closer each day. Navigating the schedules and lives of each student in your care while also managing and caring for their hearts and emotions keeps me on my toes. There is nothing easy about the holidays, but I—and many of my colleagues—savor every second of the magic.
Like every other aspect of life, houseparenting through the holiday season is all about your perspective. My husband and I choose to get lost in accidental traditions, memory making, and Christmas cookie eating. It doesn’t hurt that we get to houseparent in the sweetest and second most magical place on Earth.