Therese Park

The Privilege of Giving

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The merciless summer heat that has ruined cornfields and prairie grassland across the Midwest this year has also melted ice on the Arctic Ocean, the news reports.
This worries scientists as well as experts on children. If the earth keeps warming up as it has for the last few decades, how long will it take for the North Pole to melt down and vanish? The story of Santa Claus — the jovial man who lives at the North Pole and brings presents to children everywhere on Christmas Eve — has enriched lives with the message of hope, magic and love for more than a century. Will global warming eventually change Christmas stories? Where will Santa’s home be 20 years from now? For today’s young readers, Santa landing in a spaceship would be very cool. Just a thought.
For some children, however, Santa doesn’t necessarily live at the North Pole, wear a red suit, laugh “Ho, ho, ho!” or arrive on a sled pulled by reindeer. Ask the children who live in the Eastside of Kansas City. They’ll tell you who Santa is.
For three decades, members of St. Therese Little Flower Church at 58th and Euclid — many of them Johnson County residents — have been playing Santa’s role for as many as 300 families who live near the church. The recipients include single women raising children, widowed senior citizens and families of policemen and soldiers with injuries that prevent them from working, to mention only a few examples.
But this year, the number of the families will be reduced, according to the program director, B.J. Atkinson.
At an Aug. 19 meeting in the church rectory about this year’s Christmas Basket program, B.J. thanked a dozen attendees for their on-going support.
“Unfortunately, this year we can only serve about 200 families,” she said.
She informed attendees that one of the most generous benefactors — someone known as “The Turkey man” — had died, and that small business owners who had donated money and gift items for years had closed their doors due to the poor economy. “I don’t know which families I should eliminate from my list.”
Even for 200 families, the group needs to raise funds as they do every year. The group voted to hold a bake sale on Oct. 21 and an arts and craft sale on Oct. 28.
Since 1995, B.J. has served as the director of the emergency assistance program, which includes distributing food and other essentials to those who need help. The program helps with unpaid utility bills as well.
One of the volunteers, Johnson County resident Judy Rieck, who has donated time and gift items for 10 years, described the basket-giving ceremony that takes place a couple of weeks prior to Christmas.
“There’s a festivity in the Parish Hall with brightly lit Christmas trees — one loaded with toys and the other hand-knit wool hats — and shrieks of children,” Rieck said. “Though we call it ‘Christmas baskets’ they are actually grocery carts full of gift items — a turkey, fresh vegetables, fruit, toiletries, canned goods, toys, underwear and more. We volunteers try to look our best in colorful Christmas outfits and do everything to make our clients’ holiday as special as possible, from packing and filling the carts to pushing the carts to their vehicles and unloading them. The joy of giving makes me go back each year.”
Six decades ago, as a 9-year-old in war-devastated Korea, I was on the receiving end of Christmas presents that had come from America. In fact, the Christmas Eve in 1950 was the first time I saw a live Santa.
The previous month, the Chinese army had entered into the war theater and every day we heard the news of retreating U.N. forces in freezing weather. But that evening, I was filled with joy and excitement as I watched a hefty American in a red Santa’s suit standing at the altar, babbling in English. With help of our pastor, who spoke some English, the Santa said that he’d have come in his reindeer-drawn sled but they were afraid of the Communists, leaving him with no choice but drive a military Jeep all the way from the North Pole! Then laughing ho, ho, ho, he motioned all children to the front.
How thrilled we were when he gave each of us a bulging red stocking! Mine was filled with a box of crayons, pencils, candy canes, colorful marbles, gloves and socks. Our country had been so impoverished during the four decades of Japanese control of Korea that ended in 1945, but with war going on at the time, our country was too poor to produce anything decent, including pencils and crayons.
Six decades later, I appreciate what I had received from Americans as a child, but I appreciate more for the fact that I can now give.
Albert Schweitzer said, “You must give some time to your fellow man. Even if it’s a little thing, do something…for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it.”

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