Matching what they wish for, keeping what they get

Holidays 2004

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"We believe in the magic here," says Mary Anne Brown, executive director of Hephzibah Children's Association. "We definitely believe in the magic."

Christmas morning is quite an event at Hephzibah. "It's like a family with 26 children," Brown says. They've got 10 living upstairs and 16 downstairs in the diagnostic program, ranging from 3 to 10 years of age. Some of these kids come from the worst family situations imaginable. At best, they come from dysfunctional families. As a result, there is a credibility issue when it comes to Christmas and Santa Claus.

Sometimes, says Brown, it's not whether the big guy exists. It's whether he can find them. After the kind of chaos they've experienced before finally ending up in this sane little oasis on North Boulevard, they can't imagine how Santa could possibly keep track of their whereabouts.

But some don't believe, she says, because Santa has never shown up at their homes before. And one of the casualties of abuse, she notes, is self-esteem.

"Some think they don't deserve anything," Brown says. "Some think it's their fault, not their parents, that they're here. They can be so grumpy. I just hope they can make it through."

They do, of course, and on Christmas morning, the ones who had doubts are all the more amazed when Santa comes through for them. Volunteers fulfill their wish lists and others wrap all the gifts, starting this past Monday.

On Christmas Eve, the kids go to church. Then a magician entertains them before bedtime. The staff all wear pajamas to create a more home-like atmosphere, and when some kids wake up at 4 a.m., staff members sing them back to sleep, Brown said.

Because many of these kids suffer from post-traumatic stress, they often have trouble sleeping anyway (nightmares are common), so they tend to be up early every day.

In the morning, they each get about seven gifts plus a stocking stuffed with goodies. For some it's their first Christmas, and the skepticism quickly melts away.

"It's fun to see their eyes light up when it happens," says Brown. "It's really a very charming time."

Since most of them haven't had much, they keep everythingâ€"string, paper, everything. The whole building is decorated inside and out. "It feels safe and exciting for them," she says. "They like the pageantry."

One child who is due to leave for his foster home asked to wait until after Christmas because he was here last year and knows what's coming. Former Hephzibah kids often return to visit each Christmas with their foster or adoptive parents.

"Keeping what they get, matching what they wish for is very soothing for them," says Brown.

Like any kid, they spend the rest of the day playing with their toysâ€"except for a big brunch at 10 a.m. Eventually they fall asleep on the floor or on their beds.

Brown credits all the volunteers and organizations for making it happen. "This whole community is so supportive," she said, citing everyone from UPS to the Carleton Hotel, Hobbytown, Whole Foods, even the Berwyn Vietnam Veterans, who identify with the kids because they too suffer from post-traumatic stress.

"This is a fabulous place to work over the holidays," she said.

â€"Ken Trainor

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