By John Gray
A long time ago, a little girl named Virginia wrote a letter to a newspaper asking if there really was a Santa Claus. You know the rest of that story, and while you may pass it off as just another cornball piece of drivel produced by Hollywood, the truth is there is something magical about this time of the year. I’m not talking about something I read in a sappy Hallmark card, I’m talking about real magic. I saw what it did for a poor family in our area at exactly this time last year and I turned out to be Santa’s accidental elf.
I don’t recall the exact date, but I walked into work at Fox 23 and opened my email to see what little nuggets may await. Sometimes people seek information on stories, others want to complain, and a few like to tell me what a wonderful job I do on the weather, confusing me with Steve Caporizzo. I don’t have that much white hair for heaven’s sake! On this particular day, there was an email from a woman I met once by chance in Schenectady. She needed help.
In the course of her job, she came upon a very poor family living in what most would consider a very wealthy town in our area. In fact, I had driven by their house at least a hundred times, but never knew that tucked behind an old maple tree and a rickety porch lived a family of five facing such absolute poverty.
The email read something like this, “I know you probably can’t do a TV story on this family, but they have three very young children who have nothing. By nothing, John, I mean they can barely clothe them, and with winter fast approaching I’m worried because they don’t have socks, hats, gloves or coats.”
I felt bad for this family, but the lady was right. TV stations can’t do stories on everyone in need. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. I was busy composing a thoughtful reply to her request, recommending she contact social services or the local church, when my Inbox beeped. It was a new email, a request from a professional organization asking me to come and speak to them at their annual Christmas lunch. Before I could say no, they were offering a bribe, a “small fee” for my time and trouble. Maybe it was old Saint Nick giving me a swift kick in the head, but my wheels started turning. People never offer me money to speak, and this mysterious email appeared just moments after the other about a family in need. Too much of a coincidence for this old Grinch to ignore.
I wrote them back and told them to pay me whatever they thought was fair and mentioned I was going to use the money to ‘adopt’ a needy family I just heard about. A few weeks later at the lunch I did my best to make them laugh and when it came time to pay me, the group gave me two checks. One was mine, the other an almost equal amount they collected from their 50/50 drawing. It was for the kids, they said. I almost cried.
The next day I went to Target with the children’s sizes scribbled on the back of a Starbucks receipt and got the kids as much as those two checks could buy. I was told to purchase only clothing, but it seemed a little cold just handing the parents a bag of socks and shirts, so I tossed in a jumbo size bag of M&M’s (Christmas colors, of course) for good measure. The look on the mother’s face when I dropped them off is one that will never leave me.
I’m not sharing this story so you’ll think good of me, quite the opposite. As proud as I was that I did the right thing with the money that fell in my lap, I was also a little embarrassed that it was the first time in my life I have reached out to a needy family during the holidays this way. If not for the email from a virtual stranger, an 18-month old child may have spent last Thanksgiving and Christmas in her bare feet. Not my child. Not yours. I suppose that’s the truth we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night. Or would that be the lie?
It’s a little ironic because if anyone asks me what my favorite book is, I without hesitation tell them Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol. I’ve read the story twice and seen the various adaptations in movies my whole life. Who are the children that the ghost of Christmas Present warns Ebenezer about? Ignorance and Want. He tells Scrooge to be especially fearful of Ignorance because, “On his brow I see that written which is doom. Unless it be erased.”
I love the story of Scrooge because Dickens allows him to wake up before it is too late and gives him a chance to right the wrongs and erase the writing, as it were.
I covet the space this magazine gives me each month and treat it like a gift so I would never presume to judge or preach to anyone. But wouldn’t it be great if all of us, just this one year, did the smallest of things to help a local family in need? An extra can of corn at the supermarket to drop at the local food pantry. Picking up a toy at Wal-Mart to hand off to the folks at Toys for Tots. Maybe even finding a family in need through the local church that you and your office mates can adopt this year. It’s amazing how much a half dozen people can buy when pooling their money and their kindness together.
This is the time of year when families come together and we treat each other a little nicer. This year, with the economy so low and prices so high, the less fortunate among us, our neighbors, will need more than ever to rely on the kindness of strangers. It’s with a warm heart I wish you and yours the happiest of holidays and remind you that while Charles Dickens penned that classic tale 165 years ago, the lessons it teaches are as relevant as ever. Scrooge got his ghosts, I received an email, and you, dear reader, chose for some reason to pick up this magazine today. Santa needs all the elves he can get.
John Gray is a Fox23 News anchor and contributing writer at the Troy Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org