I am a first year student new to Madison House and I am currently involved in Holiday Sharing. Making the transition from high school to college has been pretty tough. I came from a small high school where it was easy to stay busy and involved. I spent a lot of time doing community service; it meant so much to me in high school, and more than anything, I wanted to stick with it here. One of the things that has made my transition easier has been my involvement in Holiday Sharing. I went into this program not really knowing what to expect, but so far, I have appreciated every minute of it.
My absolute favorite part was something new to the program this year: going down to the Salvation Army’s store and signing up families to participate in the Angel Tree Program. We went on a Friday, the last day available for families to sign up. Although these were not the specific families that Madison House sponsors, it was still an amazing opportunity to meet people who would benefit from our help. The process seemed a little difficult at first, but after observing a few other volunteers, we got the hang of it and had one on one interaction with the mothers and fathers who needed help this Christmas. Most of the people we saw were extremely grateful for our help and it was so amazing to see how much these parents cared for their children. One man, a father of four young children, came in initially without the proper documents needed to sign up. However, instead of giving up, he came back later with everything filled out and ready to go, just to make sure his kids had something to open for Christmas. His dedication and love for his kids made such an impact on me, and made me realize how important the Holiday Sharing program is to these families.
Often times, it is difficult to feel like I am making a difference, especially when I do not see or interact with the people that need help. After going down to help families sign up, I know that I am making a difference. My office hours this past week included working at the holiday trees located around grounds and asking people to sign up to donate a gift. Looking at the snowmen on the tree, with items like a baby blanket, clothes, toys for boys and girls, and gift cards, I felt a connection with these gifts written on paper and the faces I saw at the Salvation Army. These people really needed our help, and it made me so much more passionate when I explained the program to students passing by, and satisfaction when someone decided to buy a gift. I know how happy these kids will be when they have gifts to open for Christmas and I am especially looking forward to distribution day, when the families that we sponsor through Madison House come to pick up their gifts. I can’t wait to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, that would not have been possible without the love of their parents and the spirit and help of volunteers.
As the holiday season approaches, it’s impossible not to notice a change in our surroundings. Christmas ads flood the commercial breaks on TV before we’ve even reached Thanksgiving. Red and green goodies line the shelves of drug stores, toy stores, Hallmark stores, grocery stores, Target, Walmart, our closets. And of course there are all of those holiday carols that you can’t help but memorize if you go out in public at all during the months of November and December. But beyond all these changes, there are other things happening that we don’t notice.
We at UVA are lucky. We can afford all that red and green. We are so used to affording it, in fact, that we don’t even notice the fact that we can afford it. To us, the Christmas carols are background noise, and colorful red-and-green Hershey kisses and cheesy ornaments are available at our disposal. We walk past them in CVS without even realizing their flamboyance, without recognizing that people sit just outside who have not been given holiday chocolates in a long time, people who may have never received a Christmas card.
It’s easy to ignore all of this inequality because we are not actively looking for it. How many days did it take for you to pass through Newcomb or O Hill, in a rush to grab a meal as you run to wherever you’re headed next, before you noticed the humble tree that sits by the card swipe, displaying the modest holiday wishes of some local citizens who do not have the luxury to ignore their financial situations? How many days passed in between your noticing the tree and actually stopping to take the time to read the requests on the paper ornaments? I know I signed up to purchase a gift, but I didn’t do it the first day. And when I finally did take time to stop, I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to the project, and maybe you weren’t either. We’re college students; our families may help us out a lot, but our personal bank accounts might be pretty slim, and we already have to buy gifts for our own loved ones, so why should we take on the extra burden of buying a gift for people we don’t know?
It’s not a hard question to answer. The requests on the tree are very different from our own. For the holidays, none of us are asking for a new pair of socks, bath soap, or twenty dollars for groceries. Many of us could call home on any given day for these things, or buy them ourselves. If nothing else, we need to recognize that the holiday season does not provide the same experience for everyone. If nothing else, we need to read the requests on that tree and acknowledge what, exactly, it means that some mother here in our city is asking anyone – any stranger – to help her buy clothes for her child at Christmastime. Whether or not someone else will help her, whether or not we believe she is justified in asking, the fact is the same. What does it mean if we dismiss this as having nothing to do with us?
The holidays are largely about family, about bringing people together. They’re as perfect a time as any to try to bridge the disconnect that exists in our community – the disconnect between those who can grab the red and green Hershey kisses off the shelf as an afterthought, and those who sit outside, hungry. Do we care about these people who go hungry, who watch us eat? If the answer is “of course we care,” do our actions reflect this?
It’s true that the tree is easier to ignore. But attach a face to each one of those little slips of paper, and what you’re faced with is a person who is asking for your help. Walking past it, then, is doing more than just ignoring – it’s saying no to their plea. When you look at it from that angle, it’s easy to tell why we all should respond with a resounding yes. We should do so because we can.