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Ribbons, bows and ties that bind

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By Kurt Rietema

The tables overflowed with the excess of the season. Yellow dump trucks were primed for the abuse of new toddler drivers. Red scooters at the ready to slice and slalom across the playground pavement. And oh did we have boxes of pinks and purples! The fuschia nearly screamed out to the little girls shopping with their moms, “Look at me!” drawing them in with the same magnetism that repelled the little boys with equal force in opposite directions.

Angelica* studied every table meticulously. You could see her doing the math in her mind. Five kids. Twenty-six dollars in her pocket. What combination of gifts would bring about the maximum amount of joy? A doll with the same hue of hair and shade of skin as one of the girls. A remote control car would match the speed of the youngest boy.

That was the delight in the Argentine Discount Christmas Store. Angelica had unwrapped gifts given through charity drives before, but gifts given to an anonymous “9-12 year old boy” don’t always hit the mark. Here, she could get them exactly what she knew they’d love. Now in its third year, this is the joy we’ve seen time and again. Moms and dads and grandparents thoughtfully selecting presents for their kids and grandkids, and because they paid for it with their own money, they were given the additional gift of knowing it was they who gave the gift, not a mere stranger.

But Angelica isn’t a single mom buying presents for kids on a tight budget. Angelica is a middle schooler buying presents for her five younger siblings.

A month or so earlier, YF Neighborhood’s very own youth pastor, Joe Gonzales, kicked off our first youth group gathering with the middle school students who have been volunteering at Snack Shack KC. Joe shared his own story of growing up in a chaotic household–one that was long on partying, short on money. In short, the kind of childhood too many of the kids in our neighborhood can relate to. We hoped that it would eventually open a door for the kids to be vulnerable with us so they could support one another and not feel so alone.

“Eventually” turned out to be immediately. One young woman talked about the estrangement from her dad in jail. Another shared strategies for keeping their parents’ fighting confined to the basement to protect the little ones. There was a strange relief in this solidarity of shared suffering. Angelica spoke up. Her parents split up and the responsibilities for parenting splintered along with it. Only a seventh-grader, she knew that if she didn’t cook for her siblings, no one else would. Her birthday passed. Neither mom nor dad remembered. Angelica had seen too many Christmases come and go where her parents said they didn’t have enough money to buy them presents. She resolved to never let it happen again. We shared this tip with Amber, our staff member who manages the pop-up Christmas store, who made sure that Angelica had one of the first time slots to shop.

When she had made her final selections, Angelica paraded the presents she had chosen for each of her siblings. Two of her brothers would have to share a gift, but Angelica was proud of the presents. “But it looks like you didn’t choose anything for yourself,” Emily, our store volunteer, noted. “Yeah, my mom owes me $35 but I don’t know if she’ll pay me back, so I got what I could with what I had,” Angelica replied. “Please go pick something for yourself. And pick one more gift for each of your siblings. It’s our gift to you,” Emily insisted. After some back and forth, Angelica complied and returned once again with a basketful of presents and a heart brimming with pride and gratitude. “Do you want us to wrap the presents?” Emily asked. Angelica beamed at the decadent thought of real wrapping paper, ribbons and bows. She thought for a moment and upped the ante. “I want to wrap them myself,” she exclaimed. “But I don’t know how.” Emily didn’t hesitate. “Then let’s do it together.”

This is the joy of the work we get to do with YF Neighborhood. Far too many of God’s dearly beloved kids get caught up in vicious circles that attempt to strip away their dignity and humanity. But ordinary heroes like Angelica courageously say, ‘never again.’ Vicious cycles transform into virtuous ones. Generosity begets more generosity as we come alongside with a little assistance as they rebuild their lost humanity. And the great mystery of it all is that in doing so, God rebuilds ours.

 

*For privacy and respect, names were changed.

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