A fistful of footballs or a boatload of Barbies won’t do — the gift must fit the child

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Santa’s helpers: Enterprise reporter H. Rose Schneider shows Mary Beth Peterson of the Hilltown Community Resource Center a Disney Queen Elsa bank that can be painted. This will be donated to a child who likes arts and crafts.

Late on Sunday night, I checked my phone for the next morning’s weather, and saw white pixels gently floating down my screen. I looked outside and saw that the view outside my window matched my phone’s screen. I was delighted to watch these soft white snowflakes drift down in the night sky.

My boyfriend, less so. He instead warned me that I wouldn’t be so enamored by the first snowfall of the year when he skidded on black ice and died in a car crash.

Chris and I have differing opinions on Christmas and the holiday season. I love seeing the first snowfall, and listening to carols. My birthday also falls a week before the 25th and so growing up I spent the two weeks between then and New Year’s going over my haul of presents.

Chris works in retail, so the holiday season means dealing with the rush on both Black Friday and Christmas Eve, working extended hours the few weeks before the holiday, and oftentimes working on both Christmas and Thanksgiving.

He also becomes jaded by the onslaught of Christmas candy and decorations that now arrive even before Halloween, and the canned Christmas music that begins even before Thanksgiving.

When I was a child, my church put up a fake Christmas tree in its vestibule that was decked with paper ornaments. The ornaments had a basic description of someone in need on them, and the present that he or she wanted. For example: girl, age 11, book. Each member of my family would pick out an ornament, and we’d go on a shopping trip to buy gifts for people we didn’t know.

I would seek out an ornament bearing a description most similar to mine, which meant a girl my age who wanted a book. It was like a cross between a pen-\pal and Secret Santa. I would search for the book that I thought this girl should read or what she would like to read.

I was always disappointed when I couldn’t find a peer who wanted a book, and would have to choose an older or younger child who wanted a book, or a boy who wanted a book, or even have to bear buying something for a child who didn’t share my interests.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that it is actually difficult to buy a gift for someone you don’t know. I don’t remember what book I bought for that young girl or boy. It may have been something I enjoyed, but what if they didn’t like “The City of Ember,” or what if “Gregor the Overlander” (a book I still believe was a much better example of Suzanne Collins’s work than “The Hunger Games”) was too dark and scary for them?

Maybe my mother helped me decide to settle on something more generic and likeable, like “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Chris had a different holiday growing up. His mother didn’t have as much money as my family; most of her children’s presents were from donations. From the age of 13 to the age of 17, Chris received two gifts for Christmas: a football and cologne, usually an AXE body spray kit. Every year this continued.

Chris didn’t like footballs; he liked playing video games, and still asks for them for Christmas. I sometimes imagine footballs being spread around a somewhat messy house like an “I-Spy” book, with footballs lying in the back of closets, under couches, in the hallway, or on the kitchen table. Chris’s mom still gives him the body-spray kits; they now pile up in a box in our basement or in the bathroom closet.

As a younger child, Chris received other toys, but not always what he wanted. Thinking his mother was hijacking his letters to Santa and leading to unsatisfactory presents, he walked on his own to the mailbox and delivered the letter himself.

When he was older, he accompanied his mother to a local firehouse where toys and other gifts were donated. Inside were tables filled with items to choose from, including one stacked with footballs.

I wonder now if some young woman has a collection of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” but only that first book in the series.

To me, a football and cologne seem to sum up the two most stereotypically male gifts; these are default presents for the boy who is too old for toys. When Ralphie tries to ask Santa for a BB gun in “A Christmas Story,” and can’t get his request out, Santa offers him a football.

Chris didn’t want a football, he wanted video games. But this wasn’t available or thought of.

This year, with the help of my editor, Melissa Hale-Spencer, who paid for the gifts, I participated in a holiday gift program, this time as the adult making the purchases. Chris agreed to accompany me.

On Thursday I called the Hilltown Community Resource Center. Each holiday season, the center’s Adopt-a-Child Program brings gifts to children in need through sponsors, who receive a list from the organization of what a child or a family wants, and buys these gifts. They’re delivered, unwrapped, to the center in Westerlo, where the parents can pick them up.

On Friday, I heard back from Mary Beth Peterson, who told me more about the program and helped me pick who to sponsor. Growing up with three younger siblings, I chose a family with three children — two girls and a boy, ages 4 to 5.

The Hilltown Community Resource Center also has a backpack program in which families in need can pick up school supplies in a backpack. When the families come by, they are given the application for the Adopt-a-Child program, and are encouraged to submit as soon as possible.

 

Flashing a bright smile, Alice Spinelli is among the volunteers readying clothes on Monday for the holiday shopping season at Modern Woodmen Hall on Route 401 in Westerlo. “There are things from Talbot’s in here with the tags still on,” Spinelli said. All the items — most of them donated by St. Pius X in Loudonville — are free. The store, run by the Hilltown Community Resource Center for two decades, is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this upcoming Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

 

So far, the program has requests from about 90 children, or about 40 families, spanning the Hilltowns and into Ravena and Voorheesville. The deadline for families to submit a list was Oct. 31. But Peterson says that the letters continue to come in after that, and they’re accepted. She says they can’t leave the children without gifts.

“Usually by the end of Christmas we have anywhere from 100 to 110 kids,” she said. I ask her to repeat herself to be sure I heard her correctly. I’m amazed at the number.

Sponsors receive a list provided by the family that is divided into “needs” and “wants,” underwear and snow-boots as well as toys and games.

“So they can go to school feeling included,” said Peterson.

For the children who aren’t sponsored, Peterson says the organization uses the Toys for Tots program. Donations to the program also supplement the program, so the volunteers can buy items the sponsors didn’t get.

“It’s so hard for teenagers,” Peterson lamented, of trying to find a gift for them.

This is one reason why the Hilltown Community Resource Center gives children presents up to age 16. For those aged 16 to 19, the group holds a gift card drive and purchases gift cards for the older children.

I texted Chris after learning about this, asking him if this would be better than a football.

“So much better,” he replied.

I thought buying gifts for children would be easier than teenagers, but the issue of taking a risk on a choice or choosing the generic option kept coming up.

We needed pajamas for a 5-year-old boy who like trains and horses, but the ones we found had a tyrannosaurus rex, a shark, a wolf, a moose, or a video game controller. No trains or horses.

Chris suggested the wolf, but I was wary. When my sister was young, she had a fear of werewolves. Any imagery of wolves spooked her. But we settled on the wolf pajamas because a wolf seemed less scary than the images of a shark or T. rex baring its teeth, the moose was wearing a knotted striped scarf like a hipster, and the video game controller didn’t fall anywhere close to trains or horses.

Buying boots, some of the more expensive items on the list, was also hard. There were only so many different types of boots, and I was torn between getting one sibling the slightly better boots or giving them all the same or similar kinds. Chris, whose anxiety increased the more time I took making a decision, snapped that, in a year, they would grow out of them anyway. He was right. While my siblings are all close in age to me, his youngest brother was born when he was a teenager and he knows some of the realities of raising a child.

Clothing and shoes, or the items on the “needs” list, made up the majority of the cost. Now we would move on to toy shopping, and ensure that these children would not get a football. But the two girls both wanted Barbies, which to me seemed to be the female equivalent of that, but it is what they wanted.

For the boy, who is 5, we got a DVD of “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” because he said he liked DVDs and books about horses. We also got him a toy Thomas the Tank Engine, something my own brother loved when he was 5. There was a pricier racing track for Thomas and his friends, which didn’t seem to get the point of Thomas; he worked hard hauling coal, he wasn’t a matchbox car.

For the 5-year-old girl, we got a Barbie. I was pleased to learn the doll now has a variety of face and body types. Perhaps being a little too obvious, I grabbed the one with a “Girl Power” T-shirt on. She also had a cool hat, and red hair and freckles like me. The girl also wanted nail polish and arts and crafts, and so I found a combination of the two in a nail-art kit.

The 4-year-old girl wanted a baby doll, and I struggled to pick from what I also discovered was a wide variety of baby-doll types, before settling on the most generic one, resting in a car seat. Struggling to choose between another Barbie or arts and crafts kit, I compromised on a bank of Queen Elsa, from the Disney movie, “Frozen,” that she could paint herself.

On Monday, Melissa and I took the clothing and toys to the Westerlo Reformed Church, where gifts and food for the holidays were being stockpiled along with clothing for a thrift store. Mary Beth Peterson and Misty Schaffer were there, along with two volunteers.

After being nervous that what I had would not be enough, or I had mistakenly bought the wrong item, I was glad to find that they were happy with the results.

We drove back as snow continued to fall over the Hilltowns, as I thought of the children getting their presents that Chris I had shopped for.

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The Hilltown Community Resource Center also works with the Helderberg Kiwanis to give families supplies to make a turkey dinner for their family. Anyone who would like to make a donation of food or sponsor a child or family can call the office at 797-5256. Checks may be made out for either program to HCRC, Post Office Box 147, Westerlo, New York 12193.

 

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