DETROIT – There is nothing like seeing children happy and full of joy, like all kids should be when they wake up to find gifts that magically appeared under the tree on Christmas morning.
Except, for children waking up in homeless shelters, their Christmas Day and Christmas memories are nothing like that -- and for reasons often too complex for them to understand.
This is my “why.”
Twenty years ago, I hosted a charity fundraiser for the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries (DRMM). After hearing the testimonial from a former resident who shared her journey into and out of homelessness thanks to the love, ministry and the programming support of DRMM, my life changed forever.
The former resident had a masters degree, a great job, a home and family, and lost it all, unable to take care of herself and her children. Her story gave me perspective that I never had about our homeless community, and a sensitivity for them that began decades of community service for the mission and other shelters throughout Detroit.
In 2003, I adopted DRMM’s Genesis House II Transitional Housing Shelter for Women and their Children, the same year I founded the Rhonda Walker Foundation (RWF) for inner city teen girls.
The foundation’s core program is called Girls into Women and caters to girls in their 8th-12th grade years. The program provides a safe oasis of friendship, adult mentorships and sisterhood support through career and personal development, college prep, mentoring, health and wellness and community service programs.
Through our RWF Cares’ community service programming, I wanted to expose the RWF teen girls to homelessness and the choices and circumstances that can lead anyone to this outcome in hopes of helping the teens make better choices, while also teaching them about giving back and helping others in need without judgement.
Our RWF Cares Christmas Party is a culmination of that service. Together, the RWF family of board members, staff, teens and volunteers -- along with many of my personal friends and WDIV colleagues -- adopt the Genesis House II children as their Secret Santas, fulfilling their wish lists for toys, clothing and necessities, along with various gifts for all the women (and now a few men) at the shelter, as well.
The RWF also provides a specially-curated bin of gifts that my sister Robin Gamble spends days shopping for and wrapping for all the adults. This year, nearly 100 people at the shelter received what Robin calls her “baskets of love.”
Throughout the RWF Cares Christmas Party, I tell the families that this is their Christmas Day, and that they are so special that Santa came to see them first, weeks ahead of Christmas Day for everyone else.
We host the Christmas party at the lovely DRMM Banquet facility on Detroit’s east side. And, even with the pandemic changing some of our plans the last two Christmas seasons, we have worked hard to create a safe opportunity for our generous Secret Santas and their families to give and create a fun, happy day for the shelter families. There are safety and testing protocols in place.
One thing about me: Cancelling is never an option. If there is a will, there will always be a way.
So, on Sunday, December 12, the RWF Cares Christmas Party went off without a hitch. We celebrated with Santa, a DJ, dancing, circus performers, arts and crafts and, yes, abundant toys and goodies. Kids received a wide array of gifts, from hover boards and Nintendo Switch games, to dolls, clothes, coats, boots and any and everything you could imagine opening under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning.
Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and happy holidays!