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December 22, 2010

Bringing Christmas Cheer to Homeless Children

by Faiza Elmasry

New Orleans man organizes a holiday party for young people who have no place to call home

Christmas is a festive time, especially for children. Families gather to celebrate the holidays with delicious meals and wrapped gifts. But for children whose families have no home of their own, Christmas can be a sad time.

To put a smile on homeless children's faces at this time of year, one man in New Orleans, Louisiana, organizes a Christmas party for what he calls the "Forgotten Angels."

Getting started

When Clarence Adams applied to be a counselor at a New Orleans homeless shelter 16 years ago, he knew very little about homelessness.

"After the interview, they gave me a tour in the building and it was lunch time," Adams says. "And I saw children there. That really bothered me. I just never thought about a child being homeless."

Adams got the job and took it upon himself to help the kids coming to the shelter in any way he could. He went with their parents to register them for school and organized donation drives for school supplies. One day as the holidays neared, he talked to a friend about what it might be like for homeless children to celebrate Christmas.

"Basically the only thing that these kids had to look forward to was having their Christmas dinner in the shelter with hundreds of people who they didn't know," he says. "I mentioned to my friend that if I ever got rich, I would just have a big party for homeless children. She said, 'Well, let's do it.'"

That's how the Christmas for Forgotten Angels party started 12 years ago.

Christmas for Forgotten Angels

"The first year we had approximately 50 children. And I had my food service manager from the shelter cook the meal," Adams says. "We had fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. We had some desserts and we were able to give all the kids toys and we had Santa Claus."

But organizing that party all alone, he says, was overwhelming.

"I swore I would not do that again because it was too much work," he says. "But at the party, seeing the faces on these kids, having them come up and give me a hug and say, 'Thank you,' to see how much joy this brought to these children who would otherwise have nothing. I determined at the end I had to do this every year."

Reports about his Christmas party now appear in local newspapers every year. That's resulted in having dozens of volunteers contact Adams to donate their time as well as clothing, toys and food. This year, however, a weak economy has impacted the party.

"I do see the donations this year down somewhat from last year but people are still very generous," Adams says. "We had a group of volunteers that came for like three years in a row from Georgia. I know that last year, we got checks from four different states. I had a family that brought some toys last week. Their 7-year-old son had a $20 bill that he had saved up money from his allowance all year so he could help."

Helping out

Volunteers who can't afford to donate money come and help wrap the gifts and prepare for the party. Tiffani Hicks, a 29-year-old single mother, helped out for the first time this year.

"It's a very family atmosphere," she says. "We have other volunteers that are helping. We're all sitting around, talking. It's a very warm, loving atmosphere."

Doing something to make homeless children happy is important to Hicks. She says she knows exactly how they feel at Christmastime, because she was homeless as a child herself.

"I felt like I wasn't loved. I felt like I didn't deserve it," Hicks says. "I just felt like nobody cared about me. My Mom died when I was five years old and my aunt, she took care of us. She did what she could do for us. So we never really had a Christmas or whatever like that. It just makes you feel awful. Then after the holidays you have to go back to school and everyone is talking about what they got for Christmas, so you're kind of making up things that you wish you would have gotten, so you can fit in."

With dozens of volunteers like Tiffani Hicks, Clarence Adams says they were able to serve more than 200 homeless kids this year. The Christmas for Forgotten Angels organizer says he'd like to see his community's support and commitment to making homeless children feel special continue all year round and not just during the holidays.