|Secret Santas offer holiday gift help to parents|
"Secret Santa" LaTonia Woods wraps Christmas
presents for delivery to financially struggling parents, who then can
experience the joy of giving gifts to their
own children. UMNS photos by Heidi Robinson.
By Heidi Robinson*
Dec. 18, 2008 | WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (UMNS)
Laughter, ribbons, wrapping paper and a crowd of smiling faces could be the ingredients for a run-of-the-mill holiday gathering.
For a group of would-be elves, however, they are the tools for
accomplishing a covert mission to benefit some of the city's children,
just in time for Christmas.
Gathered around a table brimming with new toys, clothing and games,
eight volunteer "secret Santas" sort and wrap Christmas presents for
eventual delivery to financially struggling parents. The parents then
get to experience the joy of giving as they present the gifts to their
children on Christmas Day.
Vickie Sigmon, executive director
of Open Arms, visits Lucero Zarat and her 18-month-old son, Miguel.
"It’s really not about the gifts," says volunteer Richard Holbrook.
"Don’t get me wrong—the gifts are important to a child who wouldn’t
receive something. But what we’re really giving is the love of Jesus
The familial atmosphere around the wrapping station defines the
community spirit of Open Arms, a ministry of the United Methodist
Western North Carolina Conference.
"It can be Christmas all year round when we’re together here," laughs
Mary Patterson, another volunteer member of the Open Arms faith
The ministry has operated for eight years from a large white house
located in the heart of a Winston-Salem neighborhood in transition. Many
houses along the block are rentals, and the families living in them
sometimes worry about safety. Open Arms has provided a place here to
foster community growth: hosting Bible studies, providing after-school
tutoring and sponsoring a Girl Scout troop, among its many ministries.
On this afternoon, the colorful paper, rolls of tape and stacks of toys transform the living room into Santa’s workshop.
"We believe God gives every person gifts to share," says Vickie Sigmon,
director of Open Arms. "This is a place where families can be nurtured;
they can receive help, and they can serve."
Some of the volunteers have received Christmas help from Open Arms in
past years. LaTonia Woods considers the Open Arms community an
extension of her family.
"What we’re really giving is the love of Jesus Christ," says volunteer Richard Holbrook.
"I’m here helping because Open Arms opened its arms to me and my
child," says the 36- year-old mother. "There have been a lot of times
when I don’t have, but there is somebody here at Open Arms who does
have. The folks here have given to me, so anything they need help with,
I’ll be here."
The gifts usually make their way into families' homes through a stealthy delivery process in the dark of night.
"We take the presents to the families at night," Sigmon says. "We work
behind the scenes, so no one has to know the presents came through Open
Arms. It allows the parent to experience the dignity and pleasure of
giving to their child."
College freshman and Open Arms volunteer Shae Roary shares her own reasons for helping.
"We didn’t have much under the tree when I was growing up," says Roary,
18. "I want to know I’ve helped bring joy to children, especially joy at
The gift of joy
Joy is needed in many households this holiday season, but
particularly in Lucero Zarat’s one-bedroom apartment. The 18-year-old
mother of two toddlers works at least 40 hours a week, often feeling sad
that she is not at home more with her small children.
"But I’m thankful for my job, and I’m trying to save so we can buy a
car," says Zarat as she plays with her 18-month-old son, Miguel.
Zarat attends a Bible study at Open Arms and, like many members of the
community of faith, volunteers her time there. She helps cook meals
during large gatherings and donates her time to provide child care. But
like many heads of household, Zarat feels overwhelmed by the thought of
holiday expenditures—and her kids' Christmas wish lists.
"My daughter asks for lights for our house like other people have, and a
tree," Zarat says. "People want to give to their children, but they
“It will be a better Christmas now.”–Lucero ZaratFor
Zarat and other struggling families, the Open Arms van serves as
Santa’s sleigh this time of year as it pulls up beside the Zarats'
apartment complex. Volunteers make a delivery that includes a
5-foot-tall evergreen tree, ornaments and, of course, a few colorful
"Guys, can you grab that tree?" Sigmon asks, stepping out of the van with an armful of goodies.
The ministry's volunteers make many similar deliveries during December,
providing Christmas gifts to as many as 25 families who might otherwise
"What makes our community so unique is that the very families we serve
also give back to meet others’ needs at Open Arms," Sigmon says.
"Everyone has something to share. The gifts are just one way to help
meet the needs of little Miguel and his sister, Mariali."
Zarat is appreciative of this spirit of giving. "The help from Open Arms
is an answer to prayer," she says. "It will be a better Christmas now."
*Robinson is a freelance producer based in Winston-Salem, N.C.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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