When I was a freshman in college, my speech professor was very community-oriented. Our class was required to deliver a talk on a worthy local charity — and that assignment was a chance to flex our persuasive muscles. The goal? Convincing our classmates to help in whatever way they could. And inspiring us to lend a hand, too.
Helping others is close to my heart, and I chose an organization easily. That Christmas in 2003, I volunteered to help distribute toys to needy families in Southern Maryland. The gratitude, spirit of giving and generosity were so inspiring — and it was an unforgettable experience.
I’ve always wanted to go back and help again, but . . . well, in the past nine years, life has just happened. Every fall I get a letter from Christmas Connection asking if I can help by donating toys or time. Though I always chip in with merchandise, thinking that’s the fun part (shopping!), I decided it was high time to get back into the nitty-gritty of the program. A few months back, I signed up to help distribute toys on Dec. 18. My sister joined in, too.
It’s been a crazy few days, obviously, and the holidays are definitely sneaking up on me. Despite being in the Christmas spirit since October and having this event on my calendar for months, I’m struggling to get myself together since the presentation of my sparkly new accessory! But Kate and I donned our Santa hats Tuesday night and rolled over to the church to help.
A volunteer addressed the group soon after we arrived. “Thank you all for coming!” she called. “Okay — I need some volunteers to distribute books.”
Books? Say what? I hadn’t realized there were books. Recalling last time I helped, I figured there would be toys, toiletries, stockings. But books?
I was on the book table in no time. You’re shocked, I know.
While Kate shopped with individual clients, helping choose gifts for 2- and 3- and 15-year-olds, I manned the books with a teacher. It was easy to channel my bookselling days: who are you shopping for today? What types of stories do they like? Can they read on their own? Are they into chapter books? Do they like princesses or animals or history?
I felt like a self-proclaimed book elf, my jingle-bell necklace bobbing with every step I took.
We tore through some books on Tuesday, let me tell you. Two hours passed in the blink of an eye. Most of the books on our massive table, pictured at top, were donated by individuals or businesses. But even the used ones were in good shape — and plenty of gems could be found. I delighted in finding perfect reads for youngsters, thinking about how the right story can unlock the imagination of a child. In the overflowing stacks were books by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, R.L. Stine. I found Goosebumps, Ramona and Beezus, Black Beauty.
“Did you read this when you were little?” I asked, over and over again. The parents’ delighted smiles were the constant response.
Many smiled widely, gently taking my offerings. Four books per child — and some moms and dads could barely narrow down their stacks. While just a few people bypassed the books completely, nearly everyone devoted time to choosing just the right reads. And they took my recommendations seriously.
“My son loves history. He reads so well — really well. Do you have anything on American history?”
“Do you have any dictionaries?”
“Have you seen an atlas? Or anything on the presidents?”
“What would you recommend for a 13-year-old boy who loves adventure?”
The boys were the toughest — but I love a challenge. I’m happy to say no one left empty-handed — and I know every novel will land with the right person.
Any stereotype regarding parents who turn to charity to supply their kids with Christmas gifts could be dismissed after spending just ten minutes at a program like this. While there will always be folks taking advantage of the system, that’s never been my personal experience. Everyone I met was happy, grateful and warm. The mood was festive. When we left, we felt uplifted.
And I wasn’t thinking about it as charity work. I wasn’t there because I had to be. Nothing buffs the spirit to a shine like helping others — and I was thinking about matching a child with the perfect book for him or her. So many parents delighted in telling me how much their kids love books, which surprised me — especially in this era. But there we were.
And I hope there are plenty of happy kids with the Wimpy Kid and Berenstain Bears on Christmas morning. I’m thinking about them all.