There would be no family Christmas party, no decorating the tree with Christmas music playing, no hanging the stockings on Christmas Eve after Mass.
I had chosen to give a year of my life to volunteer full time as a Faith Community Volunteer with Covenant House, and I was placed in Anchorage, AK. I had chosen this commitment, a year of serving and living simply. I was prepared for Christmas to pass by quietly, with little celebration; after all, next year, I’d probably return to Christmas traditions as usual.
There were four of us Faith Community members in Alaska. We decided to buy gifts Secret Santa style, so we’d only have to buy one gift each with our limited stipends. That way, there would still be four presents – we’d have gifts to open for Christmas. Of course, our parents sent us a few things to open too – we were all so blessed to come from supportive, loving homes.
That was not the case for most of the youth who walked through the doors of Covenant House. These youth had been degraded, abandoned, beaten down, lied to, stolen from, and more. They no longer knew the security of a safe and loving home, if they ever did at all.
I may not have been able to spend the day with my family, but having experienced a Covenant House Christmas, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my Christmas day any other way. We got the privilege of being family for those who didn’t have the support of their own family in their lives. On that Thursday, Covenant House was transformed by the magic of Christmas.
Donors had provided gifts and volunteers had wrapped them, so that we as staff were able to distribute multiple gifts to 50 kids on Christmas morning. We let the youth sleep in, enjoyed hors d’oeuvres for brunch, and had a feast for dinner. We spent time with the youth in the gym, or playing with their newly received gifts.
My favorite memory is that one of our musical gifted youth, who was always playing his guitar, received a karaoke machine, and opened it to share music with the kids as everyone was finishing opening presents. He brought his guitar out and requested that I sing “Hallelujah” into the microphone while he played it on guitar. I was getting sick, and was afraid to sing, but the youth cheered until I agreed to sing. And I’m so glad I did. We were surrounded by the blessing of unconditional love there in the shelter on Christmas Day.
Far from feeling inconvenienced, I felt so blessed and honored to spend my holiday with these resilient youth. It certainly put in perspective how many things I have to be thankful for. After all, when the shift was done, I knew I had a safe, warm home to return to.
And the image that I’d be returning to at the Faith Community house was one I never expected.
Two days before Christmas, the Executive Director of Covenant House Alaska gave us one of two pre-decorated Christmas trees that a donor had given to the shelter. One roommate and I returned home that Tuesday night, just 2 days before Christmas, to find an ornate Christmas tree in two pieces on our porch. We had to break it into 4 pieces just to get it in the house and up the stairs to our living room. We re-assembled the tree and plugged it in.
Not only did we suddenly have a beautiful tree for Christmas, but we had so many presents to arrange underneath it. I carefully created piles for each of us – not only did we buy presents for each other, but we received gifts from the Covenant House Alaska staff, the Faith Community Administration in New York, the president of Covenant House International, and a host family from church.
I stepped back and looked at our tree in awe. Lights and glittering ribbons wrapped the tree, ornaments sparkled, and gifts overflowed into the middle of our small living room. The first thought that came to my mind was “God will provide!”
We chose a year of simplicity and service, yet I felt blessed with abundance beyond what I could have imagined.
That year, I witnessed that when your heart is full of love and gratitude, anywhere can be “home for the holidays.” I’ve never felt more Christmas spirit than when Christmas crept up on me as a Thursday in an average workweek and showered me with the blessings of love, laughter, and joy shared with a family of fellow volunteers and the homeless youth we served.