Last Christmas I ran into a rather awkward situation. I received a note from my Kindergartner’s teacher telling me that I should go pick up my child’s Angel Tree Gift at such and such a place on such and such a date. Angel Tree Gift? What? I didn’t sign up for that! I studied the paper very carefully and after looking at some websites, and talking to my daughter, I figured out that my daughter’s teacher had signed her up for an Angel Tree Gift that was hosted in my neighborhood. (For those of you that don’t know, the way Angel Tree Gifts work, is a child’s name is on an ornament and someone picks that ornament and then buys them Christmas presents, it’s for kids who probably aren’t going to get presents without some outside help.)
Well. That was embarrassing. We are not rich. We’re not even really well-off. But, we make enough to buy our children Christmas presents. I didn’t know what to do except go pick up the gift at the appointed time.
I looked up the address and found out that the gift pick-up place was at a small house only a couple blocks away from us. I had driven by that house every day when I took my kids to school and I had always been curious about it. It looked like a regular home, with a wrought iron fence around it, but at different times of the year it would have signs hanging on the fence. “Come Inside to Get Signed Up for Healthcare” or “Register to Vote Here”. I would occasionally see a group of young college-age people entering the house, name tags attached to their Business-Casual clothing. Whatever the place was, it seemed like a positive addition to our neighborhood.
The day arrived to go pick up the gift and my insides were roiling. I hate having to do something brand new that I’ve never done before where I have no idea what’s going to happen. It stresses me out. I had been cleaning house and had on an old pair of sweatpants and old faded sweater. It was a busy, rushed day, and without thinking, I just drove over in what I was wearing. It wasn’t until I was leaving my car that I realized I was completely dressed for the part of Poor Person Seeking Aid. Great.
Figuring out where to park had been a bit confusing, but I saw that I could approach the house from the back alley and find a place for my over-sized van. I sat in my car, assessing the situation. Is anyone else coming? Is it the right time? What door should I go to? I sat there until I saw another family approaching the house. Aha. Safety in numbers. I got out of the van and walked carefully behind them. It was a latino family, two women and a handful of small children. They were murmuring quietly to each other in Spanish. They glanced my way and I gave a shy smile. They looked as uncertain as I was.
As we approached the door, their courage seemed to give out and they hung back. I guessed I better lead the way. I stepped around them and hesitantly stepped up to the front door. Before I could knock, the door swung open and a tall black man stood there, big smile on his face. Come on in! Come on in! I gave my polite smile and stepped around him and found myself in the living room of the house. The only furniture was a couple desks and chairs. The rest of the room was full of boxes and bags. There were quite a few people present. A woman sitting behind a desk had a large clipboard with pages of names on it. Someone was talking to her, giving her the name of their child. Ok. So, this what we do? Go give our name to that lady? I decided it was as good a place as any to start. I got in line and waited my turn.
When it was my turn, the lady, an older black woman, dressed in a modest skirt and blouse, the kind of woman who looked like she ran the Sunday School Program at her church, looked up and gave me a pleasant smile. What’s the name of your child? I gave her the name and she started searching through her lists. She searched and searched. I was starting to get really nervous. Good grief. They told me I was supposed to come here, and now they don’t even have my name on the list. How embarrassing. I wished very much that I could just leave. Like right now. The lady looked up, What school does she go to? I told her. She flipped some more pages. HERE it is! SHe looked up and briskly called out a number to a young man who was waiting nearby. She pointed at an unoccupied space and told me to stand there. I went and stood out of the way, and a minute or two later a young man approached me, confirmed the name of my child, and handed me a large garbage bag. I thanked him and then glanced around me. Can I leave now? Is that it? I watched another woman take her garbage bag of gifts and walk out the door. Ok. I guess we just leave now.
I headed towards the door, but just before I got there, an older man approached me. He looked like a businessman. Black hair with silver streaks. He walked up to me and put out his hand, looked me straight in the eye, shook my hand firmly, and said Merry Christmas! The firm handshake felt comforting. The eye contact was a relief. I gave my first genuine smile since I had got there. Thank you. Merry Christmas. I walked out the door. Glad that was over, but happy. The man’s crisp Merry Christmas somehow redeemed the whole awkward situation.
I am sharing this story with you this holiday season because I know a lot of you make an effort to reach out to your community during the holidays. Something about Christmas brings out the philanthropist in all of us. I would just like to give you a glimpse of how the other side might be feeling and encourage you to find ways to treat the people you are helping with dignity.