Who wants to hear some bellyaching from Trish on Christmas Eve? Didn’t think so.
On this day I wanted to share with you a story that is the closest thing to a Christmas Miracle that I have ever participated in. (In observance of the holiday, this will be a completely snark-free message. I will resume regular programming after Christmas.)
I just completed a food drive that I run every year to benefit some kids in Philly who are so poor that they literally have no food to eat when the school cafeteria is closed. My sister worked there for years and one year she asked my mom, my older sister and I to buy some extra groceries so she could send some things home with her students so they’d have food over the holidays.
I mentioned the situation to my friend Kathy. She put a notice up at the yoga studio she went to and next thing she knew, food just started showing up on her front porch. We stood in my driveway, incredulous, as we looked through her trunk at the stuff that people had left on her doorstep. That inspired me. I thought, “If Kathy can get a trunk full of food with one note on a bulletin board, next year I’m going to shout it from the rooftops.” And I did, via email. And the email went viral. People forwarded it and forwarded it and next thing I knew, I had complete strangers on my front step, crying as they handed me bags of food, saying, “How can this be happening? We didn’t know. What else can we do?”
And a holiday ritual was born. Every December I’d spend several evenings a week unloading donors’ cars in my driveway, outside under the clear Christmas sky, bonding with strangers over a situation that was so heartbreaking. Yet there was also so much beauty as people came out of the woodwork to help.
2007 was our biggest haul ever. My house became so cluttered with donated items that it was hard to move in some rooms. My husband could barely have clients over because our entire house looked like a storage unit. We took 6 carloads of stuff into the school that year — one of those cars being a VW van that we filled to the top twice.
But something else happened that year, too.
I used to walk my dog every evening and sort of commune with the universe. That year I kept saying, “I want to make this food drive bigger this year. I want to really, really help someone in a life-changing way. I want to know that this is really making an impact.”
So ask and ye shall receive, right? Yup.
From here, I’m going to paste in the emails from that year because I think they best capture what happened:
(This is the recap email after we passed out the food.)
What an amazing experience. This food drive has been emotionally and physically exhausting, but very fulfilling. I was looking forward to this evening when I could write a final email and call it a day. But it turns out we’re not quite done, due to one girl’s story that I’m sure will keep me up at night for a while. I’ll explain that in a moment. (Forgive me if this is a bit scattered — my brain is fried but I wanted to get a report out to everyone as soon as possible.)
The food and clothing were arriving at our house almost nonstop on Sunday and Monday. I think 6 people showed up in the final hours, some with really massive loads. While I was glad to see it all, I was also starting to get nervous that we weren’t going to be able to get it all to the school. But with some extremely careful packing — basically putting together a few vehicle-size jigsaw puzzles — we did it. I followed one of the teachers in to the school this morning and I kept waiting for his VW van to tip over on the turns because it was so loaded down. Meanwhile, I was braking very carefully so that the items stacked directly behind my head didn’t dislodge while I was driving. Between food and clothes, we had about 6 carloads (last year we had 2).
When we got to the school, an armada of kids and teachers went to work unloading and setting up the food. We made a mini-grocery store and kids were told to pick something from each table. The most-needy kids went first, then the helpers, then everyone else (about 5 at a time, to cut down on chaos). The kids were very excited to see what had been sent and there were many “oohs” and “aahs” over various items. I had to laugh at their reactions to the fruit (about 5 cases arrived yesterday afternoon). They either were excited about it or they wanted nothing to do with it. One girl was so psyched that I heard her telling her friend, “Oooh, girl, I love me some apples. I’m gonna get me some of them.” One boy stood in front of a box of oranges and asked, “What’s that?” He wasn’t kidding.
Some of the kids really couldn’t believe that they were just allowed to pick up whatever they wanted and put it in their bags. The teachers caught a few students being all sneaky about it — looking around before they put stuff quickly into their bags. They had to remind them that they weren’t stealing and then everyone had a laugh about it.
I wasn’t at the school yesterday for the first day of the clothing distribution, but I’m told ALL the new clothing was snapped up pretty quickly. Several kids who were pretty bad off went home with multiple bags for themselves and family members. One teacher pointed out a well-dressed, well-groomed boy who was quietly helping set up the food. She said, “That’s Antonio. I’ve never seen him so clean. He comes to school filthy every day. It’s not his fault, though. He got that shirt yesterday.” (Incidentally, a lot of people donated grooming products this year.) Another boy — a tiny little kid with bright eyes and a very joyful disposition — also got quite a bit of clothing. I found out that he used to live in a homeless shelter.
An update: Last year I mentioned a 5th grade boy who was living in a homeless shelter. Kath told me today that he was placed in a foster home and attends a sister school. He showed up in one of her summer school classes this past year and he appeared clean, well-fed and happy. He told her that he has his own toothbrush now and that when it wears out, his foster parents buy him a new one.
OK, now to the tear-jerker. The teachers were all abuzz this morning that they were getting a new student. They actually got several new students today, but I gathered that this girl had some pretty interesting circumstances. I later found out that her brother had accidentally witnessed a murder a few weeks ago. When word got out that he had seen what happened, the family started getting threatened. The mom wanted to move right away, but didn’t have the money. Finally, the house was shot up. The family fled, and when they returned (with a police escort), the entire house had been vandalized and most of their things were destroyed. They had a few minutes to grab a few things and get out of there. They entered the witness protection program and were placed in a house a few blocks from the school. The early details were sketchy, but we heard it was a mom with five kids. (We later found out there are 14 people in the family, including a mom, a stepdad, a grandmom, an aunt and a slew of kids.) We began packing up a big load for this girl and her family . I offered to drive everything over to her new home, accompanied by some of the counselors. As we were in the counselor’s office packing up her things, the girl told us she had a little baby brother who wasn’t even a year old. Someone had donated baby toys and food through this drive and those items ended up in the counselor’s office. She pulled them out and began packing them in the girl’s bag. Then this counselor, who has seen quite a bit, sat back in her chair and began rubbing her eyes. She said, “Every year there’s one that gets to me.” As she continued packing the toys she said, “You know, the Lord always comes through.”
We filled the back of my SUV twice with food and clothes for the family. The first time we went to the house, the girl’s mom wouldn’t answer the door because she was understandably terrified. Finally her stepdad answered and we passed the things into the house. On the second trip, the mom answered the door and invited us in for a minute. The furniture consisted of one sofa cushion on the floor. That’s it. Two of the girl’s teenage siblings were there, watching two younger kids. The grandmom was sitting on a box and the stepdad was trying to paint the dining room.
Throughout the day, it was obvious this situation was a massive strain on the girl. She looked flat-out dazed most of the time and seemed very disoriented while we were trying to gather food and clothing for her. She complained of being light-headed, so they had the nurse check her out but nothing was physically wrong. We tried to get her to eat but she didn’t seem to be able to do it.
The kicker is, this family is in this situation simply because one of the kids witnessed a crime. Their lives were ripped out from under them because one kid was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So here is my appeal: I would really like to get something — anything — to these people in time for Christmas, which means that I have to have it to the school by Friday morning. I thought I might just take up a collection and give them gift cards, but Kath tells me that there are no chain stores in the area — only independent corner stores. As as alternative, I thought I would put this out to you all to see if anyone wanted to make a donation. Then I will take all the pledged money and go get things for the family at Wal-Mart or Target.
I know I have asked and asked from all of you, but I also know that a lot of you gave and gave, and wanted to give more. As we drove away from the girl’s house this afternoon, I thought that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to present this to such a caring and responsive network of people. But I will also say please, please, please don’t feel obligated to do this.
If you do want to donate, just let me know the amount by Thursday at 5 so I can hit the store. Then you put a check in the mail to reimburse me.
The school counselor is going to meet with the mom tomorrow. I’m going to call in after that and try to get a better feel for what they need the most.
One final THANKS to all of you. Bless you all!!!!!!!!!!!!
(Here is the email from a few days later.)
Santa strikes again! I know you all must have little red suits at home in your closets. This has been a week of little miracles for me as all of your donations poured in.
I wanted to update you all on the family I wrote about the other day who is in the Witness Protection program. You’re not going to believe how much money we raised. But I’m not going to tell you just yet.
First let me say that everyone who donated to the original food drive also helped this family. Not only did we bring two loads of things to them on Tuesday, but I’m told the mom and stepdad visited the school yesterday and got many, many more food and clothes items.
I called the school’s counselor yesterday to talk to her about what the family needed and the answer was, “Everything.” The other day, I saw the living and dining rooms of the house and they were furnished with only one sofa cushion. I was hoping there was other furniture or blankets or something upstairs, but there weren’t. Everyone was sleeping on the uncarpeted floor with zero blankets or pillows. The only “amenities” were a stove and a small, dorm-sized refrigerator. It’s tough to imagine.
I spoke to one of the teachers last night. This guy is used to seeing kids in heartbreaking situations. He said to me, “Were you in the house? Is it true that it’s empty? I can’t get my head around that.”
As far as my second appeal for donations to help this family out, I don’t think the word “WOW!!!!” begins to cover it. We raised 1160 DOLLARS!!! The last pledge came in when my husband and I were in the Home Depot picking out a 4.4 cubic foot refrigerator for the family. My cell phone rang and it was a friend offering a very generous amount, so we turned around, put the small fridge back and got a bigger one! We are sending a 10 cubic foot unit, which is just slightly smaller than the low-end of standard kitchen units.
A few people told me that they had things they wanted to contribute, which was a great help because that meant the donated money could go farther.
Here’s what we are sending in for the family tomorrow:
Things we bought:
Groceries, including a full Christmas dinner (the school was able to get them a turkey)
some festive food for the holiday (cookies, a brownie tray)
air mattresses for every family member
personal hygiene items
Things people donated:
A Christmas tree with lights!
Pack n’ Play for the baby to sleep in
blankets and comforters
toys for the little ones
TV with built-in DVD
Clothing, clothing, clothing!!!
2 folding chairs
4 lawn chairs (2 with nice padding)
coats and winter things
some small tables
We actually ran out of time to finish spending the money. We put the remaining $130 on a VISA check card for the mom to use for groceries or Christmas presents. I put the check cards in a nice Christmas card and signed everyone’s names.
I won’t be able to go to the house tomorrow to drop off the items (it’s my daughter’s Christmas party at school), but I hope to get a report on how it went.
Once again, THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH!!! I wish I had a new way to say it.
And one final thought as we all go into the new year: I was inspired to start this food drive by the kindness of my friend Kathy Oulahan and the staff and clients of Stillpoint Yoga in King of Prussia. Several years ago, the people at the yoga studio all responded to the needy kids at my sister’s school after just hearing about them from Kathy. Now this food drive has grown far beyond what I imagined and we have helped so many people. The kind acts of a few people started a cycle that now involves probably over a hundred people. So just remember that when you do something good, the end result may be exponentially greater than you can imagine.
(End of emails.)
The takeaway from that for me is this: The kind acts of a few people started a cycle that now involves probably over a hundred people. So just remember that when you do something good, the end result may be exponentially greater than you can imagine.
My mom came over the other night to help sort food for this year’s drive and I told her, “You know, mom, this is really your legacy. You raised your children to help others and to get involved.” (I SO have the best mom on the planet. She’s always the first to go help an old person cross the street.)
So listen, peeps. You don’t have to run a food drive. You don’t have to be Bob Geldof. You don’t have to adopt an orphan (although it’s a fantastic thing to do). Just get out there in the world and do some good. Your guerilla act of love may inspire other people — and if you have kids, you’re teaching incredibly valuable lessons. Your one act that takes a few minutes may spawn a whole chain reaction of other good acts. See how powerful you are?
And with that, all my dear bloggmuffins, I wish you all a Christmas full of miracles large and small. As always, much love from me.