In her annual version of the "Giving Tree" at Lakeview Junior High School, Skylar Unger of Dracut is asking generous donors to help provide
In her annual version of the "Giving Tree" at Lakeview Junior High School, Skylar Unger of Dracut is asking generous donors to help provide practical Christmas gifts for needy local children and for aid to children of the orphanage in Xianyang, China, from which she was adopted. Sun /John Collins

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DRACUT -- From Dracut to China, the "Giving Tree" is branching out this Christmas to embrace both less fortunate local children and special-needs orphans on the other side of the world.

For a second year, Skylar Unger, 13, an eighth-grader at Lakeview Junior High School, was granted the school district's permission to set up a special Christmas tree in the lobby of her school that features mitten-shaped "leaves" inviting her classmates, parents, teachers and the general public to donate the simplest of gifts -- pants, shirts, boots, gloves, among other items -- that dozens of needy area kids would cherish as Christmas presents which they could not otherwise afford. Local beneficiaries include children served by The Wish Project in Lowell, which brings holiday happiness to homeless families living in hotels, Skylar said.

New this year, Skylar, also attached many boot-shaped tags to the Giving Tree, requesting cash donations to be placed on Visa cards to bring smiles to the faces of underprivileged and special-needs children living at the Xianyang Social Welfare Institute; an orphanage located in Xianyang, China, from which Skylar was adopted 12 years ago at 11 months old.

"I'm hoping to raise money for those children in China especially who need surgery," said Skylar, as she checked on the Giving Tree between classes on Wednesday. "In China, it's rather inexpensive to get surgery for cleft palate -- it's about $400 -- that's why some of the boot tags on the tree say 'Visa card' on them."

The 2nd Annual Giving Tree started off with about 250 mittens and boots hanging from the branches, Skylar said. She is hoping with the community's help to approach or surpass last year's total of more than 300 gift-wishes granted, she said.

The fact that China, as a population, does not celebrate the Christmas holiday did not deter her daughter from thinking and caring about those needy children living in the same orphanage that she came from, said Fawn Unger, Skylar's adoptive mom.

Mother and daughter recently learned of an organization that directly conveys assistance to residents of Xianyang Social Welfare Institute (which includes housing and care for elderly patients, and another for special-needs children) by watching the documentary, "Somewhere Between." As stated in the film, which premiered in October 2012, almost 80,000 girls have been adopted from China by American families since 1989, largely as a consequence of the Chinese government's "one-child per family" decree issued in 1979.

Skylar Unger is fully aware that she is one of those 80,000, mother and daughter said.

"Skylar was 11 months old when we became a family, and for me, a lot of my knowledge (of China) is from her orphanage," Fawn Unger said. "As a parent taking her in my arms for the first time when she was a baby, she and I made eye contact and there was no question she was receiving the care she needed. Skylar has always felt and known that she received a tremendous amount of love from her caretakers in the orphanage, and she said she thinks often about the children that may never be able to be adopted because they have special needs, or because they're getting older."

At 13, and as a National Junior Honor Society member, it's both remarkable and not surprising to Skylar's eighth-grade history teacher Sara Velella that she has already found a way to pay back the love to underprivileged children locally, and those at the institute where she once lived, 7,270 miles away.

"She puts a lot of work into putting the tree together, maintaining it and getting the gifts to where they need to go," said Velella. "Skylar doesn't do it because she wants recognition; she does it because she really cares about helping people. A lot of people.

"I was so pleased she did the Giving Tree again this year because it's a great program that gets many of our students involved, and talking about it, and it gives them a great perspective about how much a lot of them have, and how much other people really don't have," said Velella. 

In polling students In her history classes about their Christmas wish list, Velella found some students are asking for gift items that include Dr. Dre Beats Headphones and iPhones.

"I told the kids those are fun things, stuff you want, but if you look at the mittens on the Giving Tree, you'll see these people are asking for every day things they need, which they couldn't get otherwise," noted Velella. "Last year, I remember we had one kid asking for a pair of jeans because they couldn't afford them and they just wanted to look 'normal,' like every other kid. It puts it into perspective for them."

Skylar's personal list of favorite things, besides spreading holiday joy to others, includes studying science with an eye toward becoming a veterinarian, celebrating Christmas with family and friends, and volunteering at the Nashua Soup Kitchen and shelter, as she does regularly.

Anyone from outside the school community wishing to contribute any amount toward fulfilling the wishes listed on the Giving Tree's remaining boots and mittens are welcome to send a check, made out to "Fawn Unger /Giving Tree Fund," in a letter mailed to the school's address: 1570 Lakeview Ave., Dracut, MA, 01826, with "attention Mr. Nunally" written on the outside of the envelope.

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