This post comes from Kevin Ryan, President of Covenant House, an organization that currently serves 55,000 homeless kids each year, giving them the love and support they need to find their way off of the streets.
I won’t ever forget last Christmas Eve at Covenant House.
It was just after dark, and I had gathered with our kids, our donors, our staff and my family at the shelter. Two of our Faith Community volunteers were playing guitar and singing Silent Night as a prelude to our services when a shadow appeared outside the window, and lingered.
The lighting was poor and it was hard to see who was there. The figure was hooded and hunched over. He stood there, looking in, for more than ten minutes.
I left our circle, walked past the manger and the Christmas tree, and went out the front door to see who was standing there. As I approached, I could tell it was a boy, maybe 16 or 17 years old. He had dark circles under his eyes — he looked exhausted.
“Hi there,” I said and offered a handshake. “I’m Kevin, what’s your name?”
“Jeremiah.” His smile was forced, but he was trying.
“Want to come inside, Jeremiah?” I asked.
He hesitated, not making eye contact, just gently shaking his head back and forth. “Nah, I’m alright. I’m fine here,” he said tentatively.
“Well you don’t look alright. You look tired. Come inside — we have some hot chocolate and Christmas cookies,” I offered. But he didn’t move. In my book, something has to be really wrong to turn down cookies and hot chocolate on Christmas Eve.
“Look, they’re right there,” and I pointed inside to the table with Christmas goodies. “Come in from the dark and take a load off.”
“How much you charge?” he asked, his face filled with skepticism. “I only have $26 on me and I need it. I have to find a place to stay and something to eat, and I need my money.”
“We don’t charge anything, Jeremiah. Come inside Covenant House with me, okay?” I turned to walk inside, trusting he’d follow, and he did, but slowly.
I held the door for him as we entered, and we could hear the chorus singing the refrain of Silent Night. The music stopped Jeremiah in his tracks.
“My momma used to sing that song on Christmas.” He appeared lost in the memory.
“Where is your mom, Jeremiah?” I asked.
And he took out his wallet and unfolded a faded, creased Polaroid of a young woman with two small children and a mall Santa in front of a cardboard chimney.
“That’s me,” he said, pointing to the little boy on Santa’s right knee. “That’s my brother Ty,” he said, pointing to the other toddler, “and that’s Momma.” Perfect smiles, all of them, even the little ones.
“She died. She had breast cancer, 6 years ago.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if he’d said it 100 times before. But something in the way he squinted his eyes betrayed the pain that his words did not.
“How about Ty?” I asked.
“We went into foster care and got split up. He lives in a group house somewhere. I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Where have you been staying?” I asked.
But he had stopped listening to me. Jeremiah’s gaze was fixed on the circle of kids, donors and staff singing Christmas hymns. He bowed his head and started to shake a bit. His voice broke.
“I got nobody mister. It’s Christmas and I got nobody.” His eyes had filled, and the tears were starting to spill down his cheeks.
“Yes, you do, Jeremiah. Right here.” I replied.
We ate cookies and apples and turkey sandwiches (in that order, forgive me!) He started to relax a bit. We watched the kids open presents from our donors. And, Jeremiah received some unexpected gifts as well — a backpack, sneakers and a sweater.
We sang carols, slurped hot chocolate and stayed grateful to be sharing this night inside — in the light and out of the dark of winter.
As Jeremiah, my son John and I teased each other about who was going to win the Super Bowl, my cell phone rang. Since it was late and the number was from our shelter in New Jersey, I was worried something was amiss. It was.
“Someone stole the kids’ Christmas presents,” our New Jersey shelter director told me. “They broke in through the back windows and took it all.”
God forgive me, but my first reaction was rage. Who steals from homeless kids on Christmas Eve? Where could we find new presents for kids after midnight? How much was it going to cost to fix the broken windows?
It took me a moment to calm down, and Jeremiah noticed how upset I was. I explained the situation to him and made sure he was in the capable care of our shelter team before telling him that I needed to speak with our Covenant House New Jersey team and the police.
“Here,” Jeremiah said. “Take this.”
He had opened his wallet and taken out the $26, handing it to me. “They need it more than I do.”
My friends sometimes call me Cryin’ Ryan for a reason. At that moment I was undone by the giant generosity of this sweet, broke kid who emptied his pockets to bring Christmas to other homeless kids he’d never met.
All I can say is that Jeremiah’s beautiful heart perfectly reminded me of our Covenant House volunteers and donors, and everyone who gives so generously to kids in need. Many people have found a way, time and again, to surround these courageous, innocent kids with love and hope — it lifts me high.
Giving Back for the Holidays