The power in giving joy to a needy child at Christmas
From the very beginning, it was always about the joy, bringing cheer and goodwill to those who need it the most. There are few things more fulfilling -- to realize simple acts of kindness can touch people so deeply, brighten their outlook and lift their spirits, brings a whole new meaning to "Happy Holidays."
For 17 years, Communities That Care has been providing toys, clothes and gifts to underprivileged children through our Holiday Gift Program, to lessen the burden of poverty and bring hope and joy to children in need.
It is a giving tree program sponsored by businesses, corporations and individuals wanting to give back to the community and make a child's holiday wish come true. This year, 4,000 gifts will be distributed to needy children in the Chicago area.
For most of us, it is truly hard to imagine what it is like to struggle with major insufficiencies like food and shelter, but more than 1 million people in the region face those circumstances every day. Many of us have faced challenging times when finances were tight and know the uncertainties that brings, but true poverty is a whole new reality. It is a scary and stressful time wrought with sadness or sometimes guilt if a mistake was made.
For some families, poverty is a season and things soon turn around and become manageable again; a job comes to the unemployed or an illness has run its course. And we help them for a time, until they get through their difficulties.
For those families whose circumstances last longer, the children share the concerns and worries of the family unit. Rather than being victims of their circumstances, they aspire to break the cycle of poverty and create a better future for themselves. This is why we support our youths, let them know they are not alone and someone cares about them.
Delight and joy fill the children's eyes when they see a gift with their name on it and they realize they have not been forgotten. It is more than just happiness at receiving something they wanted or needed; it is realization someone they don't know cared about them. For many underprivileged, especially those new to dealing with poverty, this is a difficult concept to grasp.
They wonder how they could be worthy of any one's kindness, much less the kindness of a stranger. In this one gesture, they realize they are not invisible, they are not alone, and they belong to a community that embraces them.
Providing a holiday gift sometimes feels like a small thing, considering the complexities of poverty, until we get the notes of thanks. Children are aware of their family's circumstances and steel themselves to accept a Christmas without the usual festivities.
So when Santa arrives, and surprise lights up their faces, the impact of our efforts becomes real. We hear things like, "The look on the children's faces when the gifts arrived, priceless." "The mother was in tears, not knowing how she could make Christmas a joyful time when there wasn't even enough for food." "A stranger really did this for us? I can't believe how nice some people in the world are. This is the best Christmas ever!"
The donors and volunteers also feel real joy when giving of their time or treasure. Many can envision the delight in the children's eyes and the excitement children will feel when they see a gift under the tree. And that is infectious.
They send notes expressing gratitude at being given the opportunity to provide for others. It is heartwarming to experience this partnership and feel the continued support of trusted partners that augments our efforts and makes the program a success.
In all of this is our amazing team. These individuals are all volunteers and it is their commitment that ensures so many children are helped each year. Tirelessly they march on, giving so much, often putting their own lives on hold until all the gifts have been distributed. Only then do they begin their own holiday preparations. They use vacation days, they give up paid work and they put their own businesses aside, all to provide for the vulnerable and less fortunate.
The joy I experience can be felt at various times throughout our process. Sometimes it is in anticipation of knowing gifts will be coming in for the children. Sometimes it is in a community partner who comes forward to help. But the joy often comes when all the gifts have come in. I don't see Barbie dolls and Legos; I see generosity. I see love of neighbor. I see care and concern. I see the extensive efforts of our team. I see a community that has come forward to care for its own.
There is no other joy like it, one that is penetrating and complete. This joy fills me to the brim and leaves me in awe -- in awe of the kindness emanating from every gift, in awe of the dedicated service, in awe of a community that cares.
And at the end of the season, we relish in the goal accomplished: Joy delivered!
• For more information about Communities That Care and how to contribute, visit www.ctc4kids.org