The Heart of Christmas

This column, written by our Executive Director Erin Hall, was published in the November/December issue of Blue Fish Digest. The full magazine can be found here: http://www.bluefishdigest.com/NovDec2013/

Photo: It's here! The new issue is available in waiting areas around the Midlands and online at www.bluefishdigest.com/NovDec2013.

As I write this column, I’m in the midst of planning for Christmas at Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter. It’s not easy to plan Christmas for 15-20 kids of all ages who don’t have the same traditions and may not all have wonderful memories of the holiday season. But the planning and organizing turn Christmas into something magical and amazing for the kids and for the gift givers.

Our kids’ wish lists are just the beginning – a teenager who only wants a bus ticket to go see her sister in another state; an elementary school kid who wants a bike; another teen who wants a Mickey Mouse doll. The wish lists remind me of how lucky I have been – my wish lists were full of clothes and toys and those items were usually waiting for me on Christmas morning, so carefully wrapped and arranged by my parents.

There is a special group of friends, companies, families and more who “adopt” our kids and make sure their Christmas wishes come true. Our office turns into Santa’s Workshop – boxes with each child’s name surround the office and are soon filled with wrapped presents.

This special group of givers bring tears to my eyes as I think about their hard work as our elves. Last year, one family adopted two brothers and I think they had just as much fun finding gifts and wrapping them as the brothers had opening them. A department at BlueCross BlueShield adopted a teenager who is a budding artist. The employees went above and beyond thinking about what this teen would want and need, this teen who wrote only one item on her wish list – contact lens solution.

The group of givers also includes a volunteer group who makes ornaments with the kids each year. Another group bakes cookies. For you and me, these might be annual traditions or wonderful childhood memories. For our kids, their time at Palmetto Place might be the first time they’ve poured red and green sprinkles on sugar cookies and waited anxiously for them to come out of the oven.

Christmas Eve Day is challenging. The kids are wound up – just like every kid! There’s been a lot of sugar, they’re on vacation from school, they’re waiting for Santa and presents and all the fun that comes with that. But there is anxiety about being away from their families. Some of our kids aren’t quite convinced there will be presents for them on Christmas Day.

We try to keep the day calm – card games, board games, movies, a quiet meal…and an early bedtime. That works for the little ones. That does not work for the teenagers who have heard the rumors from former Palmetto Place residents. They know what’s coming; they know we won’t disappoint them.

And so, when the last kid has finally gone to sleep, the elves get to work. Our houseparents and our case worker and myself have the honor of bringing Christmas to life. One by one, the boxes in our office are emptied and gifts are arranged all around the living room. Bikes are wheeled into the hallway. Stockings are stuffed. Bows are fluffed. The lists are checked and rechecked.

Then we stand and look at what our wonderful volunteers have done for our kids – giving so much of themselves to ensure that a group of very special kids have a great Christmas.

Christmas morning – it’s any family Christmas times two or three or four. The little kids rip into presents like a tornado. Their eyes and their smiles are bigger than I ever thought was possible.

But the teenagers are my favorites. They help the younger ones open presents before they open their own. They are methodical opening their own gifts, carefully unwrapping, so slowly that I want to just rip the paper open for them! But I know what they’re doing – they’re making the day last as long as possible.

Soon the teenagers head upstairs with their gifts. My favorite part of the day – the teens coming back downstairs in their new clothes. They stand a little taller, they are content, they are happy. Most of all, they are grateful and thankful.

Please don’t mistake gifts as being what we teach about the meaning of Christmas. It’s about something very special – bringing happiness to others, teaching our kids about giving, helping them think about what they want for their futures, teaching them values that they want to repeat.

I think about Palmetto Place as a huge family – the kids, our houseparents, our many many volunteers. Christmas is about family, too, and I love that our houseparents serve the role of aunt, uncle, big brother, big sister and grandma.

Palmetto Place reminds me of what Christmas is about – giving, being thankful and being surrounded by a loving family. I hope your Christmas is full of all these things and that you find the time to stop and think about what you are grateful for and what makes your life complete.

(And in case you’re wondering what happens after Christmas, well, this Grown-Up Girl celebrates Dec. 26 with Pajama Day.)

NewsErin Galloway