About 15 Riverside-Brookfield High School students delivered approximately 500 toys to the studios of WGN-TV Friday morning as part of WGN’s 17th annual Christmas toy drive, culminating an intense weeklong effort during which the Christmas spirit took over RBHS.

The local contingent was featured in a brief on-air segment with WGN entertainment reporter and movie critic Dean Richards.

RBHS freshman Natalie Barragan, who said she is a huge WGN fan, was featured briefly on live television because she wore an “I Heart” T-shirt with the name of WGN morning news reporter Ana Belaval on the front and WGN Morning News co-anchor Robin Baumgarten on the back.

Barragan is a student in Jessica Mauritzen’s Spanish 2 class at RBHS. Mauritzen started the toy drive after hearing about it only the week before from Principal Hector Freytas. She thought would be a great service project for her Spanish 2 students. 

But the effort quickly expanded beyond Mauritzen’s Spanish 2 classes, with the entire school community getting involved. The RBHS Student Association, the Best Buddies Club and RBTV students, among others, began collecting toys.

“It’s really been phenomenal,” Mauritzen said. “The kids have been participating, the staff has been participating, the community has been donating toys. They’re all new, unwrapped toys. It’s been a really moving, very emotional experience for me.”

RBHS students and staff, with help from community members, collected approximately $800 and about 500 toys, which they delivered the WGN studios on the northwest side of Chicago. 

The toys included Legos, dolls, board games and stuffed animals. The toys will be distributed to needy families by the Chicago Park District.

Accompanying the students to the WGN Studios were Mauritzen, Freytas and RBTV Director Gary Prokes who brought some of his students, who had a chance to talk to WGN personalities.

The RBHS contingent collected the toys in less than a week. After hearing about the toy drive from Mauritzen on Dec. 9, senior Noelle Harazin, a Spanish 3 student, came up with the idea of doing a penny pinch competition among Mauritzen’s and Jill McGrath’s Spanish classes. The class raising the most money would be treated to a doughnut breakfast by their teacher.  

“Each class is given a container or a bag and they throw loose change in or however much they’re willing to put,” Harazin said. 

The contest took off, with some students carrying their class’ bag or envelope around the building, asking for donations in an effort to raise more money.

“It just kind of completely exploded, in a good way too,” Harazin said. “It really was this huge group effort.”

After school on Dec. 12, Harazin took the coins and bills that had been contributed to the First National Bank of Brookfield to get large bills. When all the coins and bills were counted a teller started peeling off $100 bills to give to Harazin. 

It turned out that the students had collected $685.97, an amount that was far more than Harazin had thought was possible.

“I got in my car and started crying,” Harazin said. “That’s crazy; I mean the idea that a few classes can do something like that. It just felt unreal.”

It was more money than Harazin had ever carried around in her life. After composing herself, Harazin drove right over to the Five Below store at North Riverside Park Mall to buy toys. After loading up there she then went to the Walmart in Forest Park. 

“I bought out Walmart and Five Below,” Harazin said. “They have great toys.”

She made a conscious effort to look for toys for older boys, a group that she said is sometimes ignored in toy drives. 

“I tried really hard to get the board games and the card games, like the 12-year-old boy toys that were a little more difficult,” Harazin said, noting that she bought a Twister game designed to be played blindfolded.

On Friday morning, Spanish 2 students and RBTV students loaded all the toys into a bus and then headed to WGN to deliver the toys.

“The RB community, staff and students surpassed all of my hopes for the toy drive and just made me thankful to be a Bulldog,” Mauritzen said in an email. “It was a fun and unique experience.”