CLEMSON, SC - With the halls decked, presents wrapped and stockings hung with care at Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson's basketball players couldn't help but get into the holiday spirit.
"I feel like a little kid myself," said K.J. McDaniels, a sophomore forward on the men's team.
On Thursday evening, Clemson's basketball programs hosted Tiger Wonderland, an event designed to give underprivileged children from the community a proper Christmas experience.
The event evolved from a practice former Men's Head Coach Oliver Purnell used to make of taking local kids out to shop for gifts during the holidays. Three years ago, BI-LO got involved in the event as its title sponsor, and Tiger Wonderland found a permanent home inside Littlejohn Coliseum.
"I think Tiger Wonderland, number one, is a great opportunity to really think about people other than yourself," Women's Head Coach Itoro Coleman said. "Taking time to spend some time with these kids obviously puts a smile on our players' faces. They look forward to this event.
"And to see what they do for all of the kids here is just amazing - from making their cupcakes to the craft tables to eating and then all the presents they get."
For the event, Clemson brought in 35 children through Clemson Community Care, a local non-profit organization, and paired each of them with a member of the men's or women's team or staff.
Once paired up, the groups made their way through the arena concourse, which the Littlejohn staff, led by Zach Kerns and Dixie Wilson, had turned into a veritable winter wonderland.
"When we call it Tiger Wonderland, the name really fits the bill," Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing and Game Management Mike Money said.
Different sections of the concourse were set up to provide an array of activities for the event, beginning with an "outdoor area" where the children enjoyed crafts, cupcakes and hot chocolate, surrounded by falling snow and traditional Christmas characters such as elves and toy soldiers.
The event then proceeded through the doors of a Christmas "house," where coaches Brad Brownell and Coleman greeted the groups and invited them inside for a full meal provided by Aramark.
The next section, of course, was a large Christmas tree where Santa Claus awaited the children, along with presents for each of them to open.
"My favorite part of this whole event is watching them open up their presents, and some of the kids are crying and they are extremely happy," Coleman said. "And that's what it's all about."
BI-LO and Clemson Athletics teamed up to provide the presents for the event, and a team of IPTAY and Clemson marketing staffers went on a shopping trip to buy the gifts. Every child also received a pair of shoes, a jacket, clothing and a gift bag full of food from BI-LO, in addition to toys from each of their Christmas lists.
"It's a tremendous event, a tremendous way for us to give back to the community, and quite frankly (IPTAY Assistant Executive Director) Lindsey Leonard has done a phenomenal job organizing it from our end," Money said. "And Dixie and Zach over at Littlejohn just do an unbelievable job too. It really is truly a group effort amongst a lot of people."
The relationship with Clemson Community Care began back with the annual shopping trips and has been maintained since, thanks in large part to the work of Men's Basketball Administrative Assistant Susan Ruark, and the list of participating children rotates annually in an attempt to ensure as many children as possible get a chance to enjoy Tiger Wonderland.
"It puts a lot of things into perspective, and it also gives you an opportunity to think about how blessed you are," Coleman said. "Because everybody isn't as fortunate. I absolutely love what they do with this event, and it's so worth it - being around the kids, being in the holiday spirit. It's just so worth it."
And while the event is designed with the children in mind, McDaniels noted that the evening was just as special for the players.
"For the program, it's real big," he said. "Having everybody here, it's very important. It's a bond we all have, especially with President (James) Barker and the new athletic director (Dan Radakovich) here, it's a great experience.
"It's good to get the kids here and see how they feel about everything. We know they need some things, and to be here and support them is a good feeling. It's like an early Christmas party."