Inspired by Her Cancer Struggle, Kan. Teacher's Class Brings Holiday Cheer to Pediatric Patients

Rachel DeSantis
·3 min read
Inspired by Her Cancer Struggle, Kan. Teacher's Class Brings Holiday Cheer to Pediatric Patients
Inspired by Her Cancer Struggle, Kan. Teacher's Class Brings Holiday Cheer to Pediatric Patients

Inspired by Her Cancer Struggle, Kan. Teacher's Class Brings Holiday Cheer to Pediatric Patients

Angela Holtgraves' special education students began the Stocking Project in 2017 upon learning of Holtgraves' own cancer battle

When the holiday season rolls around, hundreds of pediatric cancer patients in Kansas will receive stockings stuffed with toys — and it’s all thanks to teacher Angela Holtgraves and her students.

Holtgraves, 34, is a special education teacher, and for the last three years, has spearheaded a special initiative called Stocking Project with her students to spread goodwill and holiday cheer to those who need it most.

“It’s a nice way for us to help others,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “This is their way of being able to show the world, ‘I might have a disability, but I can still do some pretty incredible things.’”

For Holtgraves, a mom of two based in Olathe, cheering up young oncology patients at Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Hospital is personal; she overcame a breast cancer diagnosis at 28, and one of her students was a leukemia survivor. Sharon Houser, the teacher with whom she started the Stocking Project, also has a daughter who is a young breast cancer survivor.

Holtgraves’ students at Shawnee Mission North High School had previously done projects to give back — including making hygiene bags for homeless people — but when they learned of her history with cancer in 2017, switched gears to refocus their efforts.

Courtesy Angela Holtgraves Angela Holtgraves

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Together, they came up with the Stocking Project, which went with Holtgraves when she began teaching at Olathe West High School in 2018.

The group’s initial goal that first year was to create 20 stockings. Instead, they filled 75 in just two weeks, a number that has continued to grow each year for a total of nearly 600.

PEOPLE’s second annual Kindness Issue is dedicated to highlighting the ways, big and small, that kindness can make a difference and change lives. Click here and pick up the issue, on stands Friday, Oct. 30, for more stories on the impact of kindness from Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Sterling K. Brown, Heather Locklear and other stars, as well as everyday people practicing kindness in their communities. To share the story of someone who’s done something exceptionally kind, email kindnessawards@peoplemag.com.

Holtgraves estimates that she and her students have raised more than $50,000 in donated goods, helped along with gifts from companies like Russell Stover and Sephora, as well as local businesses.

“The sense of pride they get is everything,” she says.

Angela Holtgraves' students

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Each year, Holtgraves typically dedicates a day in December to filling the stockings, which are broken down by age group and sex, including male, female and gender-neutral patients, with about 20 items each.

Because of COVID-19, however, this year’s plan looks a little bit different, and Holtgraves has set up an Amazon Wishlist for people to donate safely from home.

“I’ve always wanted my kids to understand that their disabilities are such a small part of who they are,” she says. “I tell them, ‘It’s so important for each of us to see a need, then find something you can do to help.’”

  • JOHNNY DODD, JASON DUAINE HAHN and MORGAN SMITH also contributed to this story