Our time in St. Louis was sponsored by Virginia Petschonek. Because of her generosity and the generosity of other family, friends, and sponsors, we were able to volunteer with two organizations in St. Louis (Kingdom House and Circle of Concern) and each group gets its own blog post!
Also, this post discusses the real world challenges that Santa faces, so if you have small believers that typically read these posts with you, you may want to read this one solo.
How We Found Kingdom House
Points of Light and the HandsOn Network specialize in connecting volunteers with volunteer opportunities around the country and when we told them we were heading to St. Louis, they put us in touch with their St. Louis HandsOn Affiliate – United Way of Greater St. Louis. With the help of United Way’s Alexandra Brownfield and Rick Skinner, we selected Kingdom House‘s Christmas Shop for our morning volunteer opportunity and worked with Julie Strassman and Kenneth Pruitt for our experience.
Now that we’re all finished shopping for the holidays and we have a few days to reflect, I’d like to talk about Christmas. Many find Christmas stressful – running around collecting presents at the last minute and trying to find the “right” thing for everyone on our list. During our time with Kingdom House in St. Louis, I learned about a different kind of holiday stress. I was reminded that many families don’t experience stress over buying for all, but rather finding a single gift for their children to open on Christmas morning. When I was a kid, my brother and sister and I always wondered what we would get for Christmas. We never wondered IF we would get something for Christmas.
I’m notoriously oblivious to song lyrics and I can hear a song hundreds of times without actually knowing what it says. I had that experience with the song “Here Comes Santa Claus.” You know it, right? I thought I did, but I had never listened to the words. On our way to the Christmas shop, that song came on and I started paying attention to the words. Here’s the part that got my attention:
Here comes Santa Claus here comes Santa Claus
Right down Santa Claus Lane
He doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor
He loves you just the same
Santa knows that we’re God’s children
That makes everything right
Fill your hearts with Christmas cheer
‘Cause Santa Claus comes tonight
The concept of helping parents provide Christmas gifts is familiar to all of us, but with these lyrics made me realize something. When I picture children who don’t receive Christmas gifts, I try to imagine what it’s like on that day. They wake up, run into the living room and look hopefully to see if Santa came to visit. How do the parents handle that? Will they tell the kids in advance not to expect anything? Will they say Santa was too busy? Many times I have tried to picture how this scenario plays out for millions of families and how the kids get through Christmas Day. What I realized is that for children who believe in Santa, it’s not just a matter of Christmas Day – it extends well beyond that day. In the first week of January, how do you explain to your child that Santa had enough time and resources to bring a sleigh full of gifts to your son’s best friend, but couldn’t stop at your home? Why is it that the little girl in your daughter’s class had a lavish Christmas but your own daughter received nothing?
The problem with a gift-less Christmas is not that a child is without presents. The problem is that it sends the message that they are less – they are less important, they are less worthy and they are less loved. Our society says gifts = love. While this is not true, it’s a pervasive belief. I know many adults who believe that money and love are intertwined, so how can we expect a child to see it differently? My intent is not to say that we should give children presents for a happy life. The best gift you can give a child is a happy home. My point is that there are millions of children who are confronted with the inequality of the “haves” vs the “have nots” at a young age, and that this divide is painfully clear at Christmas. For those without, the difference is tangible. For those WITH, they are oblivious to their good fortune and they don’t see how flashing their gifts at school affects the three children in the class who received nothing.
I tried to keep all of this in mind as Rebekah and I drove to Kingdom House that morning and I was excited about helping parents shop for Christmas. We’d seen a similar concept at ACS Community LIFT in Denver, which boasted a small and cheerful Santa Shop, so I thought I was prepared. Rebekah and I entered the building through a side door and then rounded the corner into the gym. It was huge. Rebekah lit up. I freaked out. There was so much stuff! How on earth was I going to help a family navigate the piles of clothes, toys and games? Kingdom House’s Director of Volunteer Management, Kenneth Pruitt, met us at the door, gave us an overview and handed us a shopping guide. I looked at the checklist they handed us and felt overwhelmed again – for kids up to age three it’s one large item or two small items and one outfit or two shirts and one toy or 300 other options. Ok, that part’s not true, but that’s how I felt. With all the people and all the stuff, I was worried about being able to guide someone through the gym without adding any more stress or anxiety to their holiday. I looked over at Rebekah to see if she felt the same way. I saw that she was already pushing a cart towards the receiving line telling Kenneth, “Sure I can do it in Spanish.” So that’s what it’s like to be an extrovert. I’ll have to practice that.
Rebekah worked with a mother and grandmother from Pakistan and lead them through the shop. One of the things Rebekah and I both liked about the system was the flexibility when it came to the selections. In particular, the grandmother that Rebekah worked with only wore skirts and dresses, which meant that she couldn’t benefit from the option to select a shirt and a pair of pants, so instead she was able to select two shirts. Beyond that, Rebekah later told me that she could tell that these women warmed to her over time and as she lead them around the gym they become more comfortable with talking about their family and sharing stories.
We also met a family of volunteers. The Potter family has six grown children and their mom, Angie, said that instead of receiving gifts, she wanted everyone to volunteer together for Christmas. What a wonderful idea! I think this may become a tradition in our family too!
I had an opportunity to work with volunteer Robin Tellor during my time at the Santa Shop. Robin is full of surprises. Robin’s grown daughters took her skydiving for her birthday. When I asked if they sprung it on her as a surprise, she said “No, I told them I wanted to go!” That’s what I get for judging a book by its cover. Robin and I met a wonderful lady named Lisa Brown who came in to shop – not for herself, but for a friend. Lisa explained to us that her friend had qualified for the Santa Shop, but had an unexpected death in the family and had to leave town suddenly, so Lisa stepped in and gave her time to come and select Christmas gifts on behalf of her friend and her friend’s three children. Lisa was a trooper. We knew the children’s ages, but not their clothing sizes, which meant we had to guess about what clothing might fit the kids. At first, Lisa seemed a little worried about picking out the right sizes and I don’t blame her. I think she felt a responsibility to return with the perfect items for the three kids. Robin reminded Lisa (and me!) that without Lisa’s help the children would be missing out all together. With that in mind and with the clothing portion complete, Lisa seemed to relax and really enjoy the process of selecting gifts for the kids.
All of Lisa’s trepidation faded when she learned that she’d scored a bike for the kids! I think Lisa’s friend and her three children awoke to a Merry Christmas!
While we were talking about the bike, Robin told me of another story about kids receiving a bike for Christmas. In a similar program with another group, a family was given a bike for their son at Christmas, which should have been reason to celebrate. Three days later, the parents returned the bike to a very confused group of volunteers. The parents explained that in their neighborhood, a new bike would draw unwanted attention and would put their child in danger. They returned the bike because they didn’t want their son to be attacked for it. Does that match with your own memories of receiving your first bike?
While hard to hear, these types of stories and experiences are what Kenneth Pruitt wants you to hear. When I asked Kenneth about his hopes for the volunteers’ experiences, he started nodding before I even finished the question, “What is it that you hope your volunteers get out of this experience?” I’ve asked this question may times. Some people are stumped and admit they’ve never thought about it before, but this was not the case with Kenneth. He answered, “I hope that they met somebody – someone who starts to change your mind about poverty. You can’t be apathetic about a problem if you know a name and a face to go with it.”
How to Help
Kingdom House offers group and individual volunteer opportunities
For group opportunities at Kingdom House call Volunteer Coordinator Julie Strassman at 314-627-9826.
For individual volunteer opportunities, visit
If you have questions, you may also email the Volunteer Coordinator: email@example.com
Please support our grass-roots volunteerism project! We’ll be traveling the country to highlight non-profits and inspire volunteerism coast to coast. If you like our work, please consider donating to our efforts!
Follow the project on:
Twitter @spetschonek #VolunteerBound
If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thinking about helping is the first step!
Sarah, thank you for your insight! You capture perfectly the trepidation many people feel when they begin to volunteer in a new capacity, and the invaluable relationships and personal epiphanies that result when we are willing to push through that trepidation. Thank you for emphasizing the importance of empathy and relationship building as a crucial element of volunteering, and for graciously giving of your time to help the Christmas Shop.
Rebekah, thank you for jumping right in and serving with our client families! Your enthusiasm for serving with people of all backgrounds is inspiring, especially when you take into account the empathy, openness, and flexibility that building relationships between people of different cultures requires. Thank you for illustrating the genuine interpersonal sharing which results when we approach the people we are serving as equals and fellow human beings, and for graciously giving of your time to help the Christmas Shop.