Christmas Caring Despite Hard Times

IN our corner of Maine this will be as tough a Christmas as has been seen in some time. Business, says one merchant, is ``simply wretched.'' A car dealer tells you he's had huge losses this year and is simply fighting to stay in business.

Another storekeeper says his daily sales in December are about one-third of what they were last year. People either don't have the money to buy, or are not buying anyway.

Each day the local daily assails its readers with more headlines of gloom. A Republican governor who just got reelected by convincing voters his administration had been fiscally responsible is now in a deep budget-cutting mode. About a thousand of Maine's 13,000 state employees may be laid off. In private industry there are layoffs and closings of plants and companies.

Other headlines suggest there may not be funds to maintain the unemployed.

For those who have lost their jobs, or are going without, this holiday season has lost much of its brightness.

A local clergyman says requests for help from the needy this year are running about four or five times higher than last year's volume.

On an organized level, helping the needy is not as easy as it once was.

Though the Salvation Army bell ringers are outside stores, breathing frostily, stamping their feet, and ringing their bells, organizers say giving is down this year. The Red Cross says similarly that funds are not flowing in as usual.

But on another, individual, level, the spirit of Christ and Christmas is abroad.

A local weekly newspaper published a list of needy cases, explaining what was wanted in each case, but without revealing the identities of the individuals and families. The cases were screened by a local nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the less privileged.

Some of the needs were simple, some more complex.

An elderly man spends most of the winter in his house because he lacks salt to treat his icy sidewalk.

An elderly woman lives alone in a small trailer. She cooks on a one-burner hot plate. She needed a small stove and an extension for her 220-volt line.

A woman in her 80s wanted 50 pounds of bird seed. Feeding the birds outside her window was her winter joy.

An eight-year-old boy needed school supplies - crayons and paper.

A wife depends on her car to visit her husband during a long hospital stay. She has young boys. Her car needed a muffler and snow tires.

Wheelchair-bound children needed stuffed animals.

A man who had just got out of hospital needed a gift certificate for food.

A woman in poor health needed crocheting cotton. She sells small crocheted items to supplement a fixed income.

An elderly man needed scraps of wood and nails to build bird feeders.

A woman needed a used freezer. She takes fish in trade for crab meat and needs to store it.

And so on.

Perhaps it was because the needs were so specific. Perhaps it was because the newspaper and the welfare organization were asking for specific items, not blanket checks. Perhaps it was because the needs of the individuals had been verified and established. But the public response was extraordinary. Individuals called. Businesses called. Within a week, every need had been met.

More cases were publicized. The response was just as speedy.

Times may be tough. The state may be insensitive or ineffective in helping.

But these examples of individuals caring for individuals remind us that the message of Christ is still alive this Christmas of 1990.

Love. Caring for one's neighbor. Not a bad way to help celebrate Christmas.

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