It’s the time of year when lots of people will be picking up kids from Angel Trees. You know the drill, the stats of some less fortunate child under the age of 12 are printed on an angel or star or snowflake of some kind. Families with disposable income pick a kid and buy Christmas gifts for him or her. They are returned to the nonprofit and then distributed from “Santa” to kids who otherwise would not have gifts under the tree. These programs across the country can be really great.
I like the concept of giving this way so much that for the past three years I’ve volunteered some time to help out. I’m not an expert on the system, or even a seasoned veteran. So my thoughts here are based on a moderate level of understanding.
Here’s what I know: it is a pride-swallowing exercise to sign up for any of these programs. You have to show up at a certain time at a particular place, stand in line with all kinds of paperwork, get moved from station to station where you are asked intrusive, private questions by strangers who may or may not speak your language, show proof of income and expenses, and then sign a statement that you didn’t lie about it all.
It requires a level of organization on the part of the parents that rivals military operations. Depending on the nonprofit, some parents have to take classes or sit through seminars during the year. They have to jump through innumerable hoops. Nobody just shows up and gets handed free stuff. I want to repeat that because of all of the misinformation and flat out lies that float around this time of year: Nobody just shows up and gets handed free stuff.
If you do all those things properly and you have the paperwork to prove it, then your kid might get something on the list you’ve carefully put together for they need and want. Or not. You really have no idea.
When I got married and had a baby, I registered at some stores. I knew what I already had. I knew what I needed. I knew what I wanted. But a significant number of people looked at that list and decided that they knew better than I did what I needed and wanted. So they bought whatever they wanted me to have. This was annoying, but easily remedied.
Because I’m a middle class white lady, I went back to the stores and exchanged the things I didn’t want or need for what I did with very few problems. No one accused me of stealing. No one threatened to call the police. No one thought I was running a scam. No one refused to work with me (except for that one incident in Target which we just don’t speak about because it’s possible in a sleep deprived state I made a total ass of myself in public.)
So here’s the thing, these parents know, for instance, that their kids already have shoes coming from a grandmother or they know that they have coats from last year that still fit. What they really need is pants for school. Or maybe they’re set on clothes, they got that part covered, but any toys, games or extras are going to have to come from someplace else. There’s no money in the budget for that. So they write that on the card. They write down what their family needs and wants.
Far too often, I hear people say that they saw what was listed and didn’t think it was appropriate, so they bought what they thought they should have. Please don’t do that.
First, that’s rude. No matter what the socioeconomic state of the person you’re buying for, it’s incredibly arrogant to substitute your judgement for theirs.
Second, there is a middle party arbiter here. Even if you don’t trust the parents’ judgement, someone talked them through this process. Someone knows why they put things on the form the way they did. It really does make sense, even if you don’t see it. You don’t have to see the whole puzzle to fill in your piece.
Third, the experience these people have when trying to exchange gifts that are duplicates is rarely the same as mine. They are poor. They are often minorities. Some have broken English. They don’t have a receipt. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to exchange an extra pair of tennis shoes for a Barbie. Often, they are treated like they did something wrong. And they’re just doing the same thing as you and me: trying to take care of their kids.
Finally, it does not make a child entitled, greedy or grabby to ask for the same toys my kid is asking for. The same commercials that enticed my child entice them. Sure, the volunteers try to steer them away from electronics, but why wouldn’t they want them? It’s not wrong to want to play with the cool games. And it’s not unfair for them to ask. Someone asked them what they wanted for Christmas and they answered. That doesn’t make them bad. That makes them human.
I have never been so scared about money that I had to pick between rent and groceries. I have never been so broke at Christmas that I had to ask anyone else for help. I have never walked in these parents shoes. But I’ve sat with them long enough to know that they are trying very hard in a system that doesn’t always work.
So this Christmas, if you chose to take an “angel” from the tree, don’t just give the gift of socks and underpants (although I’m pretty sure that every parent on the planet would appreciate that), give the gift of dignity. Give them respect. It will come wrapped as a list of things that might not make sense to you. It will be disguised as a football game for an Xbox. It may be uncomfortable, but I urge you to trust your fellow man.
Even if your very worst suspicions about what the parents will do with whatever you give come true, that’s not on you. That’s on them. Let’s just do our part. Let’s fill in our piece of the puzzle.
Let’s give with open hearts and hands and without reservations or worries. Let’s pray together that the Barbies and toy cars and Legos bring joy to children in homes where there’s not nearly enough of that. Let’s hope for moms and dads to have one morning where they can exhale and just look at their children’s delighted faces and know a few moments of peace.
Let’s actually give a little Peace on Earth!