While every family has ups and downs, and no childhood is perfect, I do remember my parents always giving. They gave their time, their money and their energy to countless causes and organizations. My dad ran the football program, my mom ran the concession stand. They coached, volunteered and donated. With six kids, they certainly had every excuse to politely say no, but, they never did.
My parents not only gave to others, they gave to us. I remember Christmas mornings with gifts scattered all around the family room. Most times we couldn’t even get near the tree cause there were so many gifts. Our holidays were plentiful. My parents dressed us in similar clothes and took photos and we spent many nights combing through the giant Sears wish book. While we were extremely blessed, my parents made sure we knew not everyone was quite as fortunate. We were aware that our small pocket of the world was not the norm.
One of the many memories I have is my dad and his charity, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I can’t remember how old I was when it started, but I remember how it started. My dad had read a local newspaper article about an inner city post office and all the Santa letters that went undelivered to the North Pole. These kids asked for simple necessities like coats and shoes, and many times they asked for them for their parents and siblings. The article detailed a few of the most heartwarming letters, with a few children asking Santa for simple things like new socks because “mine have holes in them.”
My dad read this article and decided to go to the post office and retrieve the letters. It tugged at his heartstrings that these letters would go unread and be discarded. My parents have always felt children deserve to believe in miracles. Kids need to know there is good in the world, and they have a right to believe in magic. The innocence of childhood is often robbed from these kids who grow up without the basic necessities most of us take for granted.
The next year my dad’s charity, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was born.
For the next several Novembers, I remember reading through hundreds of letters from kids living in poverty. My father reached out to a few select elementary schools in the most poverty stricken areas and the teachers gave their students an assignment: Write a letter to Santa. Those letters came to our home, and we sorted through them. Every year the local Kmart opened its doors at 3am and a group of volunteers, myself included, walked the store with a stack of letters each. We read the letters and chose jackets, socks, pants and sweaters. We bought new backpacks and blankets. Every child, whether they wished for one or not, received a toy. I remember one year going to my mother with all the items I chose for a little boy and his letter. She checked through them but sent me back for a toy. While I didn’t see how important it was then, as a parent I can now see where my parents were coming from. While some kids asked for expensive items, most wished for only necessities for their families.
Kmart discounted our bulk purchase by 10% and the gifts were loaded into a truck. A few days later the same group of volunteers gathered to wrap the hundreds of gifts. And one week in December, my dad dressed as Santa and delivered the presents to each classroom.
Over the years the charity evolved, as all things do. Some years my dad worked with the Department of Public Welfare, receiving addresses of the neediest families. Other years he gave a monetary donation to a school. One year when we were delivering to actual houses, our last stop was the Green family. There were seven children. They lived on the 8th floor of an old apartment building in a rundown area of the city. We pulled up in our van, and all seven children walked down eight flights of stairs and helped us unload their gifts. When we got into their apartment, with a Christmas tree and a turkey for them to enjoy on Christmas, my dad saw they had no electricity.
All they had was a kitchen table, a few other pieces of furniture and mattresses on the floors. The mother was a single mom. But what I remember the most was how helpful the kids were. How politely they spoke. How excited they were to have an actual Christmas tree. The floors were sparkling clean. This family was an example of how even in the hardest of circumstances you can still take pride in what you DO have, even when it isn’t much. You can still expect your kids to hold themselves with dignity, and to be grateful.
My dad immediately contacted the Department of Welfare and paid to have the Green’s heat and electricity back on. He did this for the next several years until there was no longer contact information on the Greens.
My memories of working with my dad’s charity remain vivid, and the lessons I learned are priceless. I can say with certainty I have not gone a Christmas season without sponsoring a child or grabbing a name from a tree in the mall since getting married and starting my own family. My children have packed shoeboxes of goodies for kids in other countries, and donated jackets, toys and food to local organizations. There is always a way to help a family in need, even if you don’t have much yourself.
At the end of the day we all belong to each other. This is a lesson I want my kids to learn.
This holiday season let’s celebrate the good in others and all around us. New York Life is encouraging people to go to their site and share photos of themselves or friends celebrating the good moments in life. New York Life (@NewYorkLife) is donating 25 meals to Feeding America for every tweet that includes #KeepGoodGoing and the charity specific hashtag.
*Through 1/9/15, New York Life will donate $2.50 for each approved post, with a minimum of $25K & a maximum of $100K.
See full terms and conditions at NewYorkLife.com/CelebratingGood. Find info about Feeding America at feedingamerica.org.
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