'Tis the season when generosity visits an 'invisible world'

Newspaper charity drives continue to help families who cannot afford Christmas gifts.

Some of the most heart-tugging stories every December can be found in the charitable appeals various newspapers make to collect money for needy families. Without such donations, the papers say, many children would have no gifts to open.

The names of the funds hint at the need: In Boston, Globe Santa hopes to aid more than 20,000 impoverished families. Operation Jingle Bells, sponsored by the Elgin, Ill., Courier News, pays one major bill for families in need. The Hope Fund at the Albany Times Union in upstate New York helps poor children. At the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the Santa Fund gives toys and books to children in Massachusetts. And the Houston Chronicle's Goodfellows charity provides toys for those between ages 2 and 10.

As one measure of readers' generosity, The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund received $7.6 million from more than 10,000 donors last year.

Day after day in December, these columns tell of families challenged by divorce, widowhood, or poor health. Others can't pay the rent or soaring heating bills. Still others are headed by grandparents who never expected to be raising another generation.

Whatever the situation, the urgent message is: Please give.

These funds serve as useful reminders of a world that remains invisible to millions of Christmas shoppers with money in the bank and credit cards in hand. The parents writing plaintive letters to newspapers seeking gifts for their children aren't the ones pushing gift-laden carts at Toys "R" Us or clutching long grocery lists at Stop & Shop to prepare for a bountiful Christmas meal. The Yuletide merriment goes on without them, even as Washington reminds the rest of us that it's our duty to spend more than we did last year to keep the economy chugging along.

That's also the indirect reminder publicists keep giving journalists this time of year as they besiege us with press releases that urge us to write about the coolest toys, the newest electronics, even the latest personalized gifts for Fido and Muffy.

But sandwiched among these commercial pitches for gifts are more sobering messages. A new study by Demos finds that one-fifth of middle-class families are living paycheck to paycheck, with little margin of security.

Sometimes the disconnect between the visible world of plenty and the invisible world of need shows up surprisingly close to home.

For a number of years our suburban church has taken part in two charitable efforts to help families in our town who are struggling. The first, in October, is a food drive to stock the local food pantry. A flier posted on the church bulletin board lists preferred foods, while a blue collection bin nearby stands ready for donations. In November and December, the local Community Council appeals for warm scarves, gloves, and mittens, to be given as holiday gifts to those in need.

Tuna and cereal. Mittens and scarves. These primary needs seem out of place in a comfortable suburb. But layoffs and economic reversals, however temporary, can occur anywhere, regardless of ZIP codes and leafy addresses.

One of the most poignant holiday experiences of my childhood dates back to a mid-December Saturday in fourth or fifth grade. Our Girl Scout troop invited girls from the local Children's Home to join us for a pre-Christmas outing downtown. We began with breakfast at Bishop's Cafeteria. Then we gave each girl a dollar – the equivalent of about $7 today – and went to a nearby Woolworth's so they could shop.

When we returned to the Children's Home, they gave us a tour, including their dormitory-style bedrooms and the space where they stored their few belongings. We said our goodbyes, then headed back to the security of our two-parent families and our middle-class homes with a wreath on the door, a Christmas tree in the living room, and presents under the tree.

It was my first encounter with those whose lives were radically different from mine, and it made a profound impression. Nearly every Christmas since then I've thought about those girls, who were so much like us yet whose situations were so different. I can only hope that they have carved out satisfying lives, with families – and Christmas trees and gifts – of their own.

It's a hope that extends to every letter writer asking for holiday help from charity drives. Who knows what lasting memories donors' gifts might bring?

One recipient of Globe Santa's largesse, Leslie Ahern, was 8 in 1957 when her widowed mother asked for help. Decades later, she expressed her gratitude to the paper. "We were no longer alone and scared," she wrote. "There were people out there ... who had never even met us, but who cared about us. That was the very gift we needed most that Christmas. At 8, I learned that people do care and can make a wonderful difference in the lives of other people."

That anonymous generosity, bridging two worlds, could be one of the best presents for givers and recipients alike.

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