Christmas at the Homeless Shelter
Christmas has many meanings for different people. The rush, the craziness of buying gifts and a big holiday dinner with family and friends. Making sure that everything is crossed out from your shopping list, hoping your credit can withstand another charge to your credit card.
Decking the halls and trimming the tree. In the back a Christmas carol makes its way to the kitchen where cookies and hot chocolate is filling up the air. Season greetings are pouring in the mailbox and the annual marathon of Holiday TV programming streams 24/7. Is finally here.
Christmas at the other side of town...
As you are reading this, there is a kid sitting in a sidewalk wondering if Santa will remember him. That since his family is living in a shelter, with so many other boys and girls, Will Santa stop by this Christmas?
It's cold, no money, and no place to call home. Will he remember? Mom says not to worry, the only thing we really need is each other. He agrees, he understands. Besides, happiness does not come in a box.
Nevertheless, to be acknowledged would be pretty neat too, right? Is not about material things, is about someone caring enough to take the time to share it with another human being.
Does God forget about his little ones?
I spent one Christmas with my three kids at The Coalition for The Homeless in Orlando Florida in 2009. I knew that year was going to be different for all of us. I was right, but not in the way I expected.
As Christmas approached, my focus was still to get out of there. In my mind, I reassured myself that I could make it up to my children later on in this situation. I was so sure that I had everything figured out. But, God surprised me, literally! I had a case manager that soon became my friend; she knew how difficult was for us to adjust, but on the other hand knew my determination to put this experience behind us.
Mrs. Matos (the case manager) called me to her office that 22 of December, so we can make arrangements to pick up my daughter from the hospital the next day. My oldest child had been hospitalized for 3 days by now, and if everything was OK she would out to be released the next day.
When charity turns into a statement of faith
I just wanted my daughter with us for Christmas. Especially under these circumstances. The shelter had a toy drive for the kids that resided there. I thought, that since my kids were 12,13 and 14, hopefully I could find a sweater and some clothes for them. For me that would be a God send since, back then, we had little to no clothes.
One of the other residents, Amanda, came to me running so I could pick some clothes for the kids, meaning coats. That was piled up in the hallway floor. It was very cold, and she knew we had none. Thanks to her my kids had something warm to wear at least. She did not have to do this, yet here she was a complete stranger making sure that I could do this. In a place as hostile as this one, it showed me the lengths that people that have nothing at all, will go to help another in the time of need.
With a new coat in hand, I set out to pick up my daughter at the hospital. When we came back, there were three women at the service desk with my other two kids. My heart sank to the floor. Where I come from, if you don't have a permanent address, Social Services remove the children. And since I haven't been homeless before I thought that they were here to take them away. The receptionist pointed toward me, as I saw them turn around time stopped. As I got ready to cry my eyes out. The oldest of them came to me and shook my hand with a huge smile in her face.
She identifies herself as my daughter's new Special ED teacher and the other two ladies were her daughters. Needless to say, I was very confused. But, glad that my initial assumptions were wrong.
Of Angels and elves....
She invited me to take a ride along with the kids. They even got me a pass from the shelter in advance. Taking my hands in hers, she escorted us to their SUV. We went to their home, 45 minutes away, for a Christmas dinner with their family and friends. It was very surreal to me. There was 10 to 23 people there and no one asked or mentioned us being at the shelter.
As we all got ready to eat, her husband led the group into a prayer. I could not help myself but to cry. He finished his blessing and came to my seat, with the first serving. I was too ashamed to look up. When I did, this 6'4'' tall man was tearing. The only thing that I could say was; -" What have I done to deserve this, why? You guys don't know me or my family, yet here you are feeding us! In your home!" Mrs. Gonzalez (his wife) said: -" Of course we know you! Is just that God has many faces and today he sent you to bless this house. Now EAT! -We had a lovely evening. We talked, we shared the gospel and for the first time in months I saw my kids relax.
As we head back to the shelter, I was still in awe to the day's developments. The oldest of her daughters took us back. In the car she told me how she still remembers how being homeless affected her and her family ten years ago. How going back reminded her how difficult it was for her mother to keep a good attitude about the experience. And how in spite of it all, they overcame adversity with faith. I felt so lucky to be part of such miracle. We, all, took part in it.
We said our goodbyes and blessings, so to check in at the shelter. The next morning, I was called to my case manager's office. She gave me a Christmas postcard that said:
"Material things have no value in the absence of love, but still Santa thought that your babies might like a little something when they wake up tomorrow morning. Bless you and your family. God is working for you. Never lose faith. Merry Christmas. Love; Gonzalez Family
The card had over 20 signatures. All the Gonzalez family and some friends. Then my case worker pointed out to a large black garbage bag with wrapped presents for the kids. I fell into a chair sobbing.
That night after the kids were asleep in their beds, I arranged the presents in the middle of the room. In that small room that we shared, I looked around, feeling protected and blessed, in spite of the situation. I couldn't help myself to smile. Even when I was fully employed, I knew for a fact that I could not provide them with these gifts. And yet here we were, blessed beyond our dreams. Not because of the material stuff, but for the assurance that someone cares.
My greatest blessing was to realize that God knows where we live regardless. And that angels do exist. Is not about material possessions, is about knowing that you are not alone.
Giving back and paying it forward.
That experience taught me the importance of human contact when it comes to giving back. In many cases, a smile and a hug go a long way. I am not going to address how I pay it forward, this is between God and me. But I want to encourage you to give back. You don't need money or connections to bring hope and a little joy. Get involved and give love. The rewards are incredible. Show someone that God cares, that in spite of anything, he still remembers his little ones...