When I was nine years old, I believed in Santa. That year, I wrote him an emotionally charged letter begging him to wake me up so that I could finally meet him face to face. I left cookies for his reindeer, and another note to greet him upon his arrival through the chimney. Of course he’d shoot down a narrow chimney weighing 300 pounds–I mean, he was Santa! I believed in him because my parents said he existed. And I had good reason to continuing believing them. Presents arrived miraculously under the tree because they could afford to BE Santa.
There are so many parents in the world, in the UK; in North America; in Canada; right here in my neighborhood, who cannot be Santa for their kids. This was the motivation behind The Spirit Of Christmas Donation Drive, a program started by Cory Bentley (my sister) and Kate Ross, a grassroots effort to bring Christmas to some local families who would otherwise not feel the spirit of Christmas.
At the time, Kate was working as Cory’s nanny, and also doing a placement at St. Leo’s school in Mimico. Many families at the school struggle with severely low income; others with addiction. Some are brand new families to Canada and not yet in the system; others are dealing with untreated mental illnesses. These families have fallen through the cracks of the system and don’t receive the help they so deserve. As the two chatted about what Christmas would be like for these families, they decided to do something to make it better.
In their forth year of the drive, they help between eight to ten families a year. They connect people in need with others who want to help, and who want to give a more personal thought to buying gifts. Kate finds the families most in need, and through her network and Cory’s, they match the families with local gift givers and on Christmas morning, there is no doubt Santa Claus has been there.
This year, Cory and Kate gave me a Peruvian family, with a single mother and her kids (nine year-old boy and a ten year-old girl). They moved to Canada from Peru so the children could have a better life. Her husband left her in Canada with the kids and went back to Peru, so she is now alone with no other family. In the last year, both of her parents died (whom she was extremely close to), and she couldn’t afford to return to Peru for their funerals. She suffers from major depression and is struggling to make ends meet while managing her illness and the illness of her children. Her nine year-old son suffers from Trichotillomania, which is a compulsive urge to pull out his hair, usually triggered by anxiety or depression. Her ten year-old daughter suffers from Diabetes. I tell you all of this because, although I see people in need (mental health issues, homelessness) every day, right in my neighborhood, it’s a whole different thing when you’re standing in their home.
When my sister and I pull up to the family’s home, the mother is standing outside waving frantically with a big smile. We open the trunk and begin carrying in all of the gifts. We tell her that all of them are for her family. Her eyes widen. “Thank you,” she says, her voice cracking. “You have saved my life.”
As I look around her living room, now closing in with wrapped gifts from strangers, I feel an overwhelming desire to cry. I don’t pity her or feel sorry for her. I just can’t shake the wonderment I feel about why some people have nothing and others have everything.
When I sent out the email to friends to see who would like to be involved, the responses were all the same: I would love to be involved in something so personal and direct. And did they ever get involved—they couldn’t have been more generous.
I tell the mother that the box I’m standing next to is a keyboard for the little girl. Her eyes light up, “She plays at school and loves it. Now she can practice at home!” One of my friends searched the city for baseball equipment for the boy as it wasn’t in stock in most stores. Another one wrapped beautiful baskets full of jewelry and creams for the mom. There are warm jackets for the kids; the wildly popular Ninjango Lego for the boy; basketballs for both kids.
She continues to thank us awkwardly, but with pure sincerity. There is a shyness that accompanies accepting these gifts. We hug several more times, not knowing what more to say, yet her gratitude flowing. I too believe in Santa when I look around the small cramped room full of wrapped presents, and I hope we helped them believe too. Because he’s not just a fat guy in a red suit, or a story someone made up generations ago to tell children. He is the Spirit of Giving, and in the world we live in, we have to believe in that.