My Honda Civic was jam-packed full of gifts. The trunk, the passenger seat and backseats were occupied from the floor to the roof. I made my way to the co-op they lived in feeling a genuine sense of accomplishment. From the day I finished my degree that December until that day I had filled up my car, I worked tirelessly to get as much as possible checked off their Christmas lists. I came with household goods, non-perishables and gift cards. When I went into their home for the first time, I was surprised to see what was before my eyes. Incidentally, it was in keeping with all of the rich lessons I’d learned throughout my time with her.
For as long as I live, I will never forget the day I first met her. It was a rigorous process for us to finally meet. I had to pass a criminal record check, then fill out and pass an invasive questionnaire. Then, there was a thorough background check followed by an intrusive and expansive interview in person. But, I got there. And there I sat on that winter day. Everything about that day was juxtaposed. In the middle of the rainy winter, in the biggest classroom I’d ever been in, she came in. I’d never seen or met anyone like her. For 7-years-old, she was tiny. Her hair was just growing in after being shaved from lice and she was wearing an oversized summer frock that certainly had been handed down from a woman.
I approached cautiously. “Do you like to bake?” I asked. She didn’t respond. I urged her once more, “Would you like to bake together?” Her huge dark eyes looked confused. “What’s bake?” her uncertain voice asked. She didn’t know what I was asking her. “Cookies,” I continued. “Would you like to make cookies?” Her eyes danced. Not only was it the first time I met her, but it was the first time I saw her fire. Though it just briefly danced through her eyes at that moment, both the sparkle in her eyes and dynamism impressed upon me and marked the beginning of a life-changing relationship.
Our “sisterhood” evolved over those next few years. We baked, painted bird houses, and created clay creatures. We talked of Hannah Montana and all things Disney. We actualized mini dreams in our weekly hour together. Each time we met, she impacted me more than the week before. She was spunky, a dreamer, tenacious. As a young grade-schooler, she shot straight from the hip. She said exactly what was on her mind and had a loyalty and love for her family and friends more steadfast than I’d seen in people three times her age. Each time we met, I couldn’t help but think of how foolish I was when I signed up to be in the program as her big buddy. I went in thinking about how much I would be able to give her and here she was giving me insights and teaching me to look at life more fully.
A pivotal point in our relationship was the day I got a phone call telling me she and her brother had been put into foster care. To the best of our program facilitator’s knowledge, our relationship was over. Grief-stricken doesn’t adequately describe my feelings. I feared for the impact the apprehension had on her and her brother. I scrambled to find them. I don’t remember how I got in contact with their social worker, but I pleaded my case to continue our relationship. It took much longer than I would have liked to hear back, but I got the call saying that they would love for me to take both her and her brother every week.
I drove almost an hour each way to see them, but it was worth it. Though my little buddy’s heart was broken, missing her parents, her attitude was one of perseverance and her demeanor remained full of spunk. Every day I picked her up, she had an offering for me. A little bar of unopened soap, a candy given to her that she had saved, a drawing. Her spirit of generosity was beyond moving and only became stronger once she left care and returned back home.
Their first Christmas back with their mom and dad, I decided to do my everything to give them everything I possibly could. I had just finished the last four classes in my bachelor’s degree and was already overworked. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to give back to the little girl who continued to have such an impact on my life. This little girl had a depth of character that exceeded most. When my family, extended family, loved ones, church members, coworkers and perfect strangers rallied to give them clothing, toys, iPods, toys, crafting supplies, grocery gift cards, Christmas decorations and food, I found the energy within myself to collect, organize, and wrap.
When I entered into their home, humbled at the generosity those in my life had shown a family that meant so much to me, I was very much under the opinion I was bringing Christmas to them. However, when I went in, I found a small tree, homemade decorations on the walls, and a handful of presents under the tree. The love between the parents and their two children could be described as nothing less than bountiful.
Though I certainly contributed to their gifts and food that year, I didn’t make their Christmas. And just as I didn’t make their Christmas, I wasn’t the only one contributing to our relationship. In all of my years with her and her family, I mistakenly thought I would be the one giving so much. In the end, what I got in return from my little buddy was far greater.