Many Christmases ago, hard times hit the DiFazio clan. The kids were just in elementary school.
Dad was finding it increasingly hard to deal with the debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis.
Add to that the failure of both local businesses where he and I had worked for years.
This perfect storm combined to leave us penniless at “the most wonderful time of the year.”
I had been a part of charity in action most of my life, on the giving side.
Growing up with a minister for a father, and a youth minister for a mother, it was just a part of what we did.
We gave stuff away all year long, but at Christmas time we’d locate a few families in need (they are never hard to find), load the station wagon with gifts of toys, clothes and food, and spend a day or more in places very unfamiliar to us.
In neighborhoods full of shotgun houses and ramshackle apartment buildings, railroad tracks and industrial smells, the people in need needed us and we were happy to oblige.
As an adult, I had spent one particularly heart-wrenching Christmas afternoon singing to the children left behind to spend their holiday at the Home of the Innocents.
All that experience in joyful giving did not, however, prepare me to be the head of the family in need.
It’s as painful an experience as I can remember.
I went to the Salvation Army and they gave us clothing and food, but it hurt to ask.
Christmas lists made by my hopeful children could not be filled by strangers.
Then on Christmas Eve, we opened our front door to noisy, happy neighbors.
The hatchback on their vehicle was flung open, and wrapped Christmas presents pushed each other out of the way for the chance at a prime spot under the tree these good people brought.
We didn’t know them well at all, but they had felt our need and found a way to provide through their church family.
Of course, we sent cards of thanks to all who helped, but neither the neighbors nor the church asked anything in return, not even church attendance.
So, I guess I’m a little put off by charities that require that adult recipients of help for their children attend “parenting workshops” and complete community service.
I believe we all should give something to our communities and lots of parents could use some parenting classes, but I don’t believe these things should be mandated unless we’re paying society back for a crime.
Are we punishing the poor these days?
There always will be those who abuse the system: a woman was caught just this week at a store in Meade County allegedly attempting to return her children’s donated Christmas gifts for cash.
Most people wouldn’t do that.
The year after my family was on the receiving end of a charitable Christmas, I went to work for the Salvation Army’s fund-raising department in Louisville.
I helped plan and execute the organization’s Thanksgiving and Angel Tree programs which are impressive to say the least.
A woman reached me in my office just before Thanksgiving only to find out she was too late to apply for a family dinner.
It was time to give again.
My family, neighbors and friends packed my station wagon with turkey, ham, potatoes and sweets.
For good measure, we added napkins, dish detergent, shampoo and every other odd and end we could think of.
The kids and I hopped in the old Nissan and made the drive from Oldham County to a home near Churchill Downs, popped open the hatchback and piled boxes into this family’s living room.
I’m not going to sugarcoat this.
The adults did not lavish smiles and thanks on us. They were too embarrassed by their need.
But, the children smiled.