An Extraordinary 2018 Christmas Gift
When I came aboard as a mentor of 10th grade inner-city girls a year ago, I promised myself that I would never pretend I understood or knew what I didn’t. And there was a great deal that I didn’t understand or know, more, even, than I’d realized.
Recently, my dearth of understanding and knowledge hit me in the face like a bucket of ice water on an unseasonably warm fall afternoon when the girls and three mentors, one of whom is me, took a field trip to a non-profit called Guardian Angel Settlement Association. This is an agency in the city of St. Louis, MO, that offers underserved populations such services as counseling, workshops, utility, rent and mortgage assistance, as well as food and clothing.
The field trip was designed to be a lesson to the girls in giving rather than receiving at holiday time. The agency is housed in an old three-story brick structure with gray and white walls and faded oak wood floors. The rooms are muted and low lit, spare and undisciplined with stuff scattershot--rooms jammed with boxes and cans of food, others with clothing and shoes. The third floor, once an attic, is a repository for such discarded items as TV consoles, shoes, old clothing, bedding and towels and lethargic box fans, space heaters and window air conditioners. It also housed, on the day we were there, some 250 wrapped gifts to be distributed to homebound underserved seniors for Christmas.
The girls entered a small side room on the first floor where they got to work assembling 110 food baskets for the seniors. They wrote cheery and hopeful personal holiday messages and drew pictures on cards that they attached to each food bag. Then the girls walked up the narrow steep staircase to the third floor to carry down to the first floor the wrapped packages so volunteers could pick them up and deliver to the seniors along with the food bags by Christmas day.
Everything that transpired during those 90 minutes was a teachable moment. Teaching something good like helping others, always aims to reach both head and heart. Students had to be both thinkers and doers—filling the bags and writing messages for each recipient. This wasn’t test taking or memorizing for grades, but hands on—doing something important and significant outside themselves.
The girls bombarded the woman who supervised our visit with questions. They heard her explain that if someone cannot pay a gas bill, electric or rent, they can come to the agency for assistance. They learned how many people are served and where the agency gets the money to support its mission--from private donations, corporate funding, grants and support from the United Way. It was eye-opening information.
Before we left, the girls realized that in that short time, they made a huge difference. One asked, “What would have happened if we hadn’t done this today?” The woman in charge answered, “It wouldn’t have gotten done and the seniors would not receive the food bags and gifts on Christmas Day. They’d be disappointed and hungry.”
These girls could relate. Many have experienced disappointment and hunger at Christmastime and other times as well. Some have had their families helped by agencies like Guardian Angels. Almost all live in poverty with a single parent and several siblings, and struggle daily to survive. A few are homeless living in shelters or have been evicted so many times, they have no permanent home.
But on this day, these girls weren’t receiving help or feeling sorry for themselves as they gave and gave of their time. And they felt rewarded--satisfied, good. What they did mattered.
After we walked out the front door to wait for the bus to pick us up, a homeless person approached our group. She pushed her way between us and asked for money. We all turned away except one 15-year-old girl who reached into her pocket and pulled out $2, money she had earned in tips from her job on weekends as a hostess in a restaurant. “Here,” she said smiling, handing it to the woman. I wondered if she and her single mother had been the recipient of such kindness in the past? We complimented her on doing such a nice gesture.
This day was a good reminder that good deeds, like a good idea, are always relevant at holiday time or any time when so many are forgotten. No matter your status or difficulties in life, sometimes all you need is the opportunity to do something for someone else to make you view the world around you anew. This was just one more experience that boosted my knowledge and understanding as a mentor of these special girls.
And equally important, this was my extraordinary 2018 Christmas present that will remain with me forever, the best kind of present.