Before I begin my report on this year's Chicago Santa Letter Project, I'd like to tell everyone about our amazing community of elves. This year, our elves sent gifts and good wishes from Alabama, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, England, and Israel. Our elves were of all ages and religious faiths, both single and married, many with children of their own. They sent toys and warm clothes and candy and extra wrapping paper. They mailed me extra dollars for gas and for last-minute purchases. One elf sent money for donuts for the mailroom workers who sorted through all the elf packages at my place of employment. Another elf sent money for a restaurant gift certificate for the post office employee who became indispensible to the success of the project. Many elves sent me holiday cards (which are now on our fridge!), telling me about themselves, their families, their lives, and their committment to this project. All of the elves consistently amazed me with their spirit, their generosity, their capacity for feeling, and their desire to do good in the world. Elves, you raised my spirits at the end of what has been a difficult year. You became a cherished part of my December days. You made me feel a part of something greater than myself. You humbled me with the enormity of your souls. I miss hearing from you all already.This year, we delivered the gifts on Christmas Eve. Every year has its own mishaps and last-minute emergencies, and this year had more than its share. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we left the house with a tight schedule. I had to do a parent-child observation, DH had to do some work, and then we had to race home, load the car with gifts, and transform ourselves into delivery elves. As we pulled the car out of the garage, we looked at one another in puzzlement - why was the car dragging like that? Answer: flat tire! DH quickly changed the tire in the midst of cold falling snow, and we drove to the nearest garage, which confirmed that the tire could not be fixed. Getting worried, we then raced to Sears, praying that it would be open. And it was - except that, according to Lizbeth (the nice young woman behind the counter), it would take 2.5 hours for them to get our tire on. Disaster! What could we do? By some miracle of luck, I had the children's letters in my backpack. I pulled them out and showed them to Lizbeth, explaining about the elves all the while. "I'll have them bump you up to the front of the line," Lizbeth answered, taking the letters to show the guys in the garage. Twenty minutes later, we were on our way.A few hours later, work finished and car fully loaded, we set out to make our deliveries. Our first delivery was to Tatiana, a 14-year-old girl who had written to ask for some warm clothes and shoes: "My mom and dad just got divorced. My dad dont even call any more. Sometimes I wish I was never born or was dead" (http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=16243892). Tatiana lived in a dense but reasonably safe area, in a three-flat. When we pulled up to the front, we could see a light on in the window that we believed to be her apartment. I rang the buzzer, and we were buzzed into the flat right away. However, a worried face hung over the bannister. "Please don't come up without identifying yourself," a woman's voice called down, "Can I help you? Who's there?" "It's Santa, for Tatiana," we called up, "Tatiana wrote a letter, and our elves got it." The woman's voice lowered to a stage whisper as she excitedly said, "Oh, come on up! She's in her room!" We climbed the stairs, and entered a small, spare, very clean apartment. Tatiana's mother hugged us warmly. "Thank you for this," she said, "She's been SO depressed." We knocked on Tatiana's door; a shy, unsmiling, awkward teenager answered it. We gently explained who we were, and why we had come. We got no excited shrieks from her, no giggling or jumping up and down. Instead, Tatiana just began to cry silently, and put her hand over her eyes as though she were in pain. My husband put the box of gifts on the floor of her room while I hugged her. We sat on the edge of her bed while she began to unpack the gifts, smiling shyly now with pleasure and disbelief. "I can't believe anyone would do this for me," she kept repeating, clutching the large white stuffed bear an elf had sent. As we left, she called down the stairs, "Tell them thank you - thank you, thank you, thank you, a million times over."Our next delivery was to Jennifer, a 17-year-old girl who had written to ask for some gifts for her mother: "I work and try to help out as much as I can but my mother won't take my money. Recently she got sick with kidney stones and had to go into the hospital and we realized what all she does to keep our family moving smoothly. Santa please do something nice for our mom. She deserves it" (http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=16243856). Jennifer lived in an extremely bad neighborhood. I rang the bell; an elderly woman came to the door. "Can I help you?" she asked, clearly puzzled by the large box in my husband's arms. "Is Jennifer here?" we asked. The woman tentatively opened the door, then turned and called for Jennifer. As we stepped inside, we could see that the house had very little furniture in it, and was extremely cold. Suddenly, Jennifer walked into the room - and I know that my husband was as surprised as I was. Jennifer was absolutely lovely and remarkably poised. She greeted us warmly and graciously, as though we were old friends. We explained all about the elves, and she clapped her hands in delight. She called to her siblings, who began to pour into the tiny front room from the back of the house. They began to chatter in amazement at the heavy box filled with beautifully-wrapped presents, as Jennifer grabbed her mother's and grandmother's hands and explained who we were. Jennifer's mother began to cry, and the two of them embraced. "We just wanted something good for you," Jennifer said to her mother. As we left the house, we could hear the noise rising higher and higher in shouts of happiness.Our next delivery was to Chastity, a 10-year-old girl who had written to ask for clothes for her and her brother: "My mother try so hard to keep me and my brother happy but this year she has to buy us things by herself. My dad left us last year and mom has to buy with no help. My grand dad use to help us but he died last year and she has no help" (http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=16243989). Many years ago, when my husband and I started doing this project, we made an agreement concerning safety. We agreed that we would never walk into a building that we could not get out of quickly, if the need arose. As we pulled up to Chastity's building, we realized with some dismay that it was a high-rise housing project. We sat in the car for a while, discussing our options. "There's a kid in there, and it's Christmas Eve, and her presents are out here," I finally said. "Let's give it a try," my husband answered. As we entered the building, a female guard in a small booth behind what looked like bullet-proof glass beckoned to us. We gave her the apartment number so she could ring upstairs. "What are you doing here?" she asked us sternly. We explained about the elves, and suddenly - unexpectedly - her face creased into a broad smile. She called upstairs and demanded to speak to Chastity. "Santa's here, girl," she laughed into the phone, "You better believe it!" She hung up the phone and buzzed us through the locked doors. A few minutes later, we were in Chastity's small but warmly-furnished apartment, watching as Chastity and Charles leapt around us in excitement and joy. Cordero, clearly pleased but too old to shriek, grinned and stood close to my husband. Chastity's mother kept clasping our hands through her tears, as Chastity and Charles fell on the loose candy that one elf had sent. "Do you want a Hershey's?" Chastity asked through a full mouth, and her mother kept hugging me. "So what orgnization are you with?" she asked. "It's not an organization," we explained, "It's more like ... um ... just people." "Well, tell those people that they did something important here tonight," she replied.Our next delivery was to Glen, a young boy who had written to ask if he could see his father for Christmas: "I live with Grandma my mom and dad are in jail I go to see my mom sometimes. For xmas I wish I could see my Dad" (http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=16243910). As we pulled up, we noticed that there was a chain on the fence, and a dog bowl inside the fence. We rang the fence bell numerous times, but no one answered. However, we could see a light on inside. We were discussing the advisability of scaling the fence in order to ring the doorbell ("What are the chances that the dog bowl belongs to a real dog?" - "Could it be a nice dog?"), when a man approached us. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Elves," we immediately replied. We explained the project to him. He didn't smile, but he did point to the light in the window. "I know they're home," he said. Then he walked back across the street. Encouraged, we continued to ring the fence bell, and now we began to scream: "GLEN! GLEN! GLENNN!" Suddenly the front door flew open, and an elderly woman walked down the steps. "What on earth?!" she demanded. "Elves are here for Glen!" we shouted. She stared at us as though we were aliens. "Glen wrote a letter to Santa," we shouted, "and our elves got it!" Silence. Then: "oh my." She opened the fence and ushered us into the warm apartment. "Glen!" she called. A small boy with enormous eyes shyly entered the room. His clothes were far too small for him - the sleeves of his top were too short, and his little stomach poked out from under the waistband. When he saw the box of presents, his eyes widened in amazement and he got a hilarious expression on his face - almost as though he was going to swoon with delight. He kept on pulling and pulling on the waistband of his top in shy pleasure, and dancing a little. He asked if he could open a gift, and chose a large box on top of the pile. It was a pirate ship, and I swear I thought that the child was going to pass out with joy. "That comes all the way from England," I told him. "Where's England?" he asked. "England is in heaven, honey," his grandmother answered, enveloping my husband in an enormous embrace, "It's where angels live."Our last delivery was to Celestine, a grandmother of four small girls whose father (Celestine's son) had recently been killed: "I had a hard time to buring him. We didn't have any insurance. I'm barley keeping a roof over my head. So it's hard for me right now. So anything you send me will be a true Blessing from (God) so his girl's can have a Real Xmas without him even though they ask for there Daddy all day and every day" (http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=16243937). As my husband and I pulled up in front of the house, we stared at each other in horrible sadness. I have traveled in some of the worst urban neighborhoods in New York City and Chicago, and I can think of only one child who was living in worse poverty than these children. The street lights on Celestine's block were all broken, so the street was dark. All up and down the street stood abandoned, vacant, boarded-up, or burnt-out houses. Broken glass crunched under our tires and feet. The street was deserted, except for an occasional carload of young men cruising slowly by. We rarely, if ever, feel unsafe, even in supposedly "bad" neighborhoods - and yet we both felt chilled with fear in this place. We could not imagine anyone living in this hellish place, much less children. I rang the bell of a two-flat, and a blanket blocking the window was pulled aside. A young man opened the window and stuck his head out into the cold. He stared down at me, uncomprehending. "Is Celestine there?" I called up. "She's at church," he called down. "How about the girls?" I asked. "With my mother - with Celestine," he answered. His eyes kept moving back and forth between me and my husband, clearly confused, but also weary and uncaring. "I have gifts for the girls ...." I began, "Celestine wrote a letter...." I could feel my chest tightening in sadness and despair and the terrible, terrible reality of how these children were living. I was afraid that I was going to start to cry. The boy called down, "Okay - well, thanks, I'll come down and help you." As the three of us walked up a dirty staircase to their apartment, my husband and I stopped in amazement on their landing. Posted all over the wall, under the single burning lightbulb, were hand-lettered signs, obviously written by Celestine. "Thank you Jesus," one said. "Jesus: You are there every day," read another. "I love You more today than yesterday," read a third. Surrounding these signs were photocopies of pictures of the grandaughters - colorful pictures of smiling babies. "How old are the girls?" I asked the young man. "Two, three, four, and five," he answered softly. My husband and I stood there staring at the wall, astonished. Through the open door, we could see the impoverished apartment - the tiny bathroom with broken tiles, the empty living room - and we could feel the freezing temperature of the rooms. And yet, in every available inch of free space, this woman had created a testament to her faith and religious beliefs. How was it possible, in the midst of poverty this severe? But there it was, right in front of our faces, all over the wall - Celestine's heartfelt expression of love for G-d. "You can stay and wait for her," the young man offered. "No," I answered, "Just please give her this message: some people got her letter, and wanted her to know that she was not forgotten." Back in the car, both my husband and I started to cry. On the drive home, I thought about how each year of this project is different, how each year carries with it its own lesson and its own message. And I thought about how this year, the lesson for me was that I can, and should, and will do more. My husband and I didn't talk for a long time. Finally, he said, "Maybe next year, we'll make it all about Celestine?" Elves, you are amazing human beings. You give me renewed faith in the goodness and generosity of other people. You inspire me to do - and to be - better. Every single one of your gifts, and every single one of the children's letters to Santa, are precious to me. So I hope you will understand if I say that the true meaning of this project, and its true significance, was made most apparent to me through my encounter with Celestine. Because despite all of the horror in which she lives, Celestine believes in you - she believes that people are fundamentally good, and that her faith is not baseless, and that miracles can happen. Bless you, elves, for proving to her this Christmas that she is right, and that you are real.
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