While our family participates in several holiday charities each year, this year we joined a fantastic little group that provided me with the most meaningful charity experience I’ve ever had. I’d like to share it with everyone in the hopes that others might take up the cause next year, and we can all make an amazing difference.
A friend of mine started several years ago with a charity he thought up that he dubbed “Craigslist Christmas.” He would post on the free section of Craigslist, explaining that if anyone was having serious trouble providing their families with Christmas, he would step up and help. And for the first two years, he got something like 5 or 6 responses, and he and his family would quietly help 2 or 3 families in need. Last year, because of the economy, his responses exploded: 60 responses in the FIRST HOUR. In 2008 he got about 150 responses, so he reached out to friends, knowing he couldn’t help everyone, and people pitched in. Altogether, they helped about 30 families.
This year the response was just as great. So when my friend contacted me, I thought it was such a brilliant idea I wanted to join in.
Here’s how it works. Secret Santa (my friend, who wants to remain anonymous, uses this alias on Craigslist) goes through the responses and carefully chooses the families who are most in need. (It’s not meant for someone who just wants a new Playstation; it’s really meant for people who can’t even provide necessities for their families.) He sets up several different nights where his Secret Elves (those of us who are pitching in to help) and the families in need meet at a local Target. After he introduces himself to the families, he pairs each of his Elves up with a family, briefly explaining their plight. And off we go, through Target, buying the family what they need for Christmas. This year, on the night I joined, there were 13 people in all who each helped a family, and that was only one night out of three. So all told, over 40 families were helped this year.
My family had two children living in a Caribbean country whom they usually support while they are trying to get them to the States (one spouse is American, one has a green card). They both lost good, well-paying jobs about a year and a half ago, and they cannot support the 9 and 12 year old kids, who are currently living with a teenage step-brother. So we went around and got clothes, shoes, socks, underwear– just basic necessities, plus a gift for each.
The really sobering moment for me came when one spouse kind of hesitantly asked whether we might get an air mattress for them. I got kind of jammed for a second, my mind raced, my jaw dropped, and I looked at this couple and said, “They don’t have a BED?” They both shook their heads no. Good HEAVENS, people, these kids are sleeping on the FLOOR. They don’t have a bed!!! So we headed to the camping department and got them an air mattress with pump that they can share.
I thought about all the gifts sitting under my tree for my kids, my husband, and myself, and I thought, where is the justice that we have all that and these kids don’t have a bed? Intellectually, I understand that there is great suffering in the world, and that we are beyond lucky to have what we do. But this experience was visceral; here I was face to face with parents who agonize every day as they can’t provide food, clothing, or basic necessities to their distant children. It broke my heart.
At the end of the evening, when I had purchased everything and arranged to ship it to the kids, I gave the couple a gift card to a local grocery store (another of Secret Santa’s charitable touches). We hugged and said “Merry Christmas,” and I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to help someone out face to face. I got to know this couple just a tiny bit during the 2 hours or so I was with them, and truly, it was an honor to be able to help their kids. Secret Santa is simply brilliant.
To me, this kind of grassroots charity is where it begins and ends. This friend simply decided he wanted to help some people, and he figured out a way to do it. I still believe there is great value in all the highly organized charities out there, but I’ve also learned that anyone can do something to help out in their local community. To quote We Add Up, “No one can do everything. Everyone can do something.”
The beautiful postscript to this story comes from a family that my friend helped himself. The next day, he got an email from them. As they were driving home, they saw a woman on a freeway off-ramp with a sign that said, “Will Work for Toys.” They pulled over and, thrilled at the charity they had just been shown, they gave this woman some of the toys that they received at the Target gathering. They also got her number, and they asked my friend if he might be able to help one more person. And indeed, he did. He called her up, told her he understood she’d been having a hard time with Christmas, and arranged to meet her the next night at Target. Pay it forward, indeed.
I think Secret Santa’s idea is so amazing that I hope others might take up the cause. It’s an incredibly meaningful way to make a difference face to face, right in your own community.