The holiday season has arrived, and chances are many of us are preparing for family and friends to arrive, or going home for the holidays. But with over half a million Americans surviving without shelter, the spirit of Christmas takes on a new meaning to families who are experiencing homelessness.
For many years I was a director for nonprofit that provided shelter and services to the homeless, or as I preferred to say “those experiencing homelessness”. One of my goals as a director was to begin to shift the narrative of how we view “the homeless”. Homelessness is a complex issue, but it is a circumstance, not a definition of who someone is.
As part of our holiday programs, we provided toys to children. One year, mid-January a mother with 4 children came to receive a variety of social services, including job application assistance, food and mittens for her children.
One of her daughters, age 4, asked me “Did you have a Merry Christmas?” I kneeled down to her height and replied, “Yes, and how was yours?” Her shoulders dropped and she hung her head. “We couldn’t have Christmas this year”, she said with great sadness.
“Last year we brought a tree home on our car, but this year we live in our car because our daddy lost his job. Without a house, so we couldn't hang our stockings and Santa couldn't find us. Or maybe he just forgets about you.”
I replied, “I’m glad you’re here! You are not forgotten. Guess what? Santa left your presents here because he knew you’d visit us.” The little girl’s eyes first widen in disbelief and then lit up with pride. “Mama! We weren’t forgotten! Santa found us! We matter to him!” Her mom tried to hide her tears from her kids as she gave me a hug whispering “thank you”.
That year, Santa become a symbol for more than gifts. To that little girl, Santa represented the intrinsic human needs that we all have. We all want to be seen, heard, and know that we have value, and that we matter.
This holiday, if you are struggling, may you give yourself the gift of knowing that you have intrinsic value and that you are not your circumstances. And if your circumstances are good this year, we can teach our children that the spirit of holiday's greatest gift comes not from receiving, but from giving back.