Yes, there is a Santa Claus.
I've seen him take numerous forms in my 13 years as a social worker, more specifically during the holiday season as a program director for the Allen County Salvation Army. Every year we assist more than 2,000 children in need in our community during Christmas alone. All of those coats, toys, clothes, food … it would be impossible not to believe in the spirit of St. Nick.
In 13 years as a social worker, you can imagine I've seen a lot of things that hurt: behavior on both sides of the charitable coin from donors and recipients that exhausts you mentally. However, the goodness you find at the base of all the noise of the job makes it worth the dedication to the mission, because it's reaffirming at the end that there is the most selfless kind of love.
I have seen and believed this, always. But I'm quickly approaching a time where I am unsure for how much longer I can hold this as a truth.
I've noticed the change for years, an increase in the lack of empathy and a coldness of hearts. I've told myself it was a combination of my own age rendering me more aware as well as the human fault of focusing on the negative over the positive experiences we live through.
But as we head into this holiday season, I can no longer deny the chilling reality that I've become accustomed to, the new nature of how we treat our neighbors in society.
As COVID-19 has pushed our organization to a peak in numbers of first-time applicants as well as those who were in need of human services (more than 20,000 this year alone in Allen County), it also gave me the highest number of demands from donors insisting that before they assist a family or help a child, they be given the political affiliation of their parents.
You read that correctly.
Donors insist that before they help, they know who the people they're helping are voting for.
The first few requests I shrugged off as singular instances, until gradually they became a new norm for me to ready an answer for. All seem to be like-minded, that if they're assisting children whose parents are voting a certain way, they are not worthy of basic necessities.
I've listened to endless defenses of this line of thinking, mostly ranting about how these anonymous people are lazy and unjustly entitled, all the while ironically insisting that “if I'm kind enough to give out of my own pocket, I have the right to make sure it's not one of those people!”
Never in all of my years did I think that I would have to explain to so many adults that we find it unconstitutional and unethical to ask our clients what party they were politically affiliated with before we offer them our help. Furthermore, the majority of the assistance in question is for their children, who aren't exactly in the position to form an opinion on any party fight other than Paw Patrol vs. PJ Masks.
I've never seen so many individuals who believed that what side of an aisle their parent leaned toward should determine whether or not a child is allowed to eat.
This year marks also the highest demand for “non-ethnic” names of children on our Angel Tree. Granted, no one says “only give me Caucasian-sounding names.” It's a request for “traditional names” or “names we can actually pronounce.”
When you receive stacks of certain tags back, or watch the names on the online tree disappear, you quickly realize which names are consistently overlooked.
I've watched an influx this year of hateful comments as we kick off our campaign for the red kettle, urging people to give during a time when cash is scarce but the need is great. The animosity, the anger, the venom as people eagerly post how they refuse to help an organization that assists “system suckers” with their “welfare babies” (direct quotes).
Seeing comments such as those is nothing new for me; witnessing the number of people who rally behind that line of thinking and inspired hatred is.
I've always said that charity is a personal thing. No one should feel pressured to give or shamed for not doing so, but I never thought I would live to see the day of urging others to boycott humanity and decency. Yet here I am.
As I said before, I've seen a lot of hurt in all of my years of social work.
I've known the pain of clients who escape in the middle of the night to save their children's lives from domestic violence.
I've known the angst of soldiers who served our country bravely, and now are finding it impossible to support their families because of their trauma.
I've known the anguish of watching parents who had to quit their jobs to stay at their cancer-ridden child's bedside, their unimaginable agony as they later walk them to a gravesite.
But for the first time, my heart has opened up to an entirely different kind of hurt. One that sees these people and in response clenches its fists. One who mocks and shames, who judges and scorns, then empowered, turns to rally others behind them to spread the sickness of hate.
I am so fearful of what is to become, not only of the thousands of vulnerable we care for but for ourselves and our humanity as it begins to peel away from us.
Every year, after we've packed the last Christmas dinner box and filled the last child's gift bag at our distribution site, I sit down at my laptop and send this off to the community, words that prove true after all of these years that remind us what truly makes the Christmas season.
“Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
Thirteen years later, I'm asking myself for the first time: Will he?
Jama Smith is program director for the Allen County Salvation Army.
You can help
Resources for those wishing to make Christmastime donations through the Salvation Army:
• Take a child from Angel Tree and provide an outfit and a toy:
• Provide a teen with a gift card:
• Provide a family with Christmas:
• Ring a bell for two hours: