Who Got the Gift

Lynne Spencer

There is nothing more sad than visiting a children’s group home at Christmas time.  Many years ago, I participated in a holiday initiative through my employer where we collected toys and other gifts and took them to a group home that served children from ages 8 to 16.  The children were there for a variety of reasons.  Some were behavioral issues; others were there because their own family couldn’t take care of them, and some started out as medical problems.

The “home” spaces were separated by age, gender and disorder and although it was decorated well, it didn’t feel like a home.   The locked and alarmed doors made it scream, “institution.”

When we arrived, we were taken to a large multi-purpose room where the children were seated and squirming.  We did crafts, sang songs and decorated a tree, but you could tell, the only thing the children wanted to do was open presents.

Overall, everyone was well behaved.  It was noisy and messy with wrapping paper thrown everywhere, but everyone had a good time.   There were two children there that really touched me.  One was a fourteen-year-old girl with wavy brown hair.  She was waiting to hear if she was going to be able to go home to her family for Christmas.  Apparently, there were some issues that made the home unsafe for her, but she really wanted to be with her mother.  She asked for pajamas for Christmas and was thrilled when she opened a pair of pink pajamas and slippers.  She jumped up and hugged me and showed me what she got.  She said, “you smell good, you smell like my mom.”  She went on to tell the other children around her how pretty her mother was going to think she was when she modeled her pajamas.

The other child was an eight-year-old boy.  He was small for eight years old and I noticed a bruise under his left eye.  It was his first day at the facility and when he saw the presents, he made sure he told us that Santa Claus didn’t know he was coming here today so there probably wasn’t anything there for him.  I knew he was trying to convince himself that it was OK to not get a present, but it was heartbreaking.

We stayed for hours interacting with the children before it was time to leave.  I wanted to check on “my kids” before we left.  I found the little girl sitting in a corner, crying.  She was told that she wasn’t going home for Christmas; it just wasn’t safe for her.   She hung on to me and dissolved in tears.  She inhaled my perfume and said, “my mom won’t get to see my new pajamas.”  I had no words for her, just hugs.

My little man found me cleaning up and told me, with a big smile in his voice, “Santa Claus did know I was going to be here.  He brought me two toys and a tee shirt.”  He was busy pulling the shirt over his head to show me.  He was beaming and I knew the toys and the shirt took away a little bit of the fear he must be feeling.  I was glad.

It takes special people to work in homes like these every day.  I was glad that I visited and glad that for a very short time, these children were the focus of joy and goodwill.   I took away many more gifts than I gave.  It was a Christmas I will always remember.