‘A lot of us don’t got good Christmas memories. My mom couldn’t afford presents, or was too drunk.’: Woman who worked with troubled youth struggles with holiday traditions after hearing their hardships

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“Right out of college I took a job working with troubled kids throughout the worst areas of Los Angeles. In my ignorance I was prepared to be afraid of them, bracing myself to be on the defense, even packing pepper spray in my purse on the first day of work. What I wasn’t prepared for was to truly love them, and it happened almost right away.  I worked with kids as young as 5, and as old as 19, all either on probation or in foster care, sometimes both. To this day the kids I met during that time are some of the smartest, most kind-hearted, motivated kids I’ve ever met, they just happened to be born into really shitty situations.

The first year I worked at a group home in a particularly rough part of North Hollywood, I tried to make a big deal out of Christmas in a very middle-American-ignorant-white-girl kind of way. Let’s decorate the tree! Let’s make Christmas cookies! When I found out that the very small budget the organization had to cover Christmas gifts wasn’t enough to get the kids more than one small gift each, I ran around getting donations. Kids need presents!

To my WASPY surprise this wasn’t well received. The kids, all boys between the ages of 12 and 17, were mostly kind about it, although visibly annoyed. I wanted to know why, what where the traditions they grew up with, what did they miss? A few days before Christmas one of the younger kids, Jamal, offered to help me wrap some of the gifts, so I asked him about it.

He sighed, not sure how to proceed.

‘Is this another one of my white girl questions that you guys tease me about?’

He laughed, ‘Nah, it’s just…a lot of us don’t got good memories of Christmas. It’s not really our thing. Some kids do. But most don’t.’

He told me he didn’t get presents when he was little because they either couldn’t afford them, or his mom was too drunk to buy any. For years he figured that it was because he was bad, because that’s the story, right? Santa brings presents to good kids; bad kids don’t get any. He also told me a story about waking up on Christmas morning when he was 5 or 6, spending it alone because his mom was on a bender. He sat in his living room hoping that Santa wasn’t real. Santa’s lack of existence was comforting, rather than the idea that he was alone and present-less because he was bad. It hit me how terrible the Santa story is for kids who don’t get gifts. My world opened up a bit that day, being taught life lessons by a 12-year-old will do that to you. I’ll never forget his face, so matter of fact, not any of the tears or grief you’d expect. He was just trying to help me understand.

Courtesy Jackie Dodd Mallory

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was determined to remove Santa from our celebrations, determined to focus on the act of giving to others rather than the getting. But, as these things always go, that’s not how it turned out. Preschool happened and Santa entered her world, and I was left to try to reconcile these things. It’s a game we play every year and I do my best to ride the line between the magic of Christmas and the reality of the real world. I cringe when she comes home from elementary school and asks why some kids got an iPad from Santa and some kids just got socks, where the sock kids bad? Where the iPad kids better? It’s a question that I get every year in one form or another, and I dread it every year.  Each time it comes up, I think of the years I spent working with kids who didn’t even get socks for Christmas.

I’d be hard-pressed to name a dozen gifts I’ve been given over the years. But I’ll never forget Jamal and I hope he never has to spend Christmas alone again.”

Courtesy Jackie Dodd Mallory

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jackie Dodd Mallory of Seattle, Washington. Follow her on Instagram here and visit here website here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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