It was just a box of Legos.
There was nothing fancy about them, they weren’t Harry Potter or Frozen-themed, and there was no Baby Yoda anywhere in the box; they were just plain, boring building blocks.
But those Legos proved to be one of the most memorable gifts we ever gave out in my nearly decade of working for The Salvation Army in Monterey, California. I had a unique role there and it involved making a lot of lists and checking them way more than twice; but unlike the big guy in the red suit, I was less concerned if children were naughty or nice and more concerned with helping their parents — even the ones that were less than nice during the process.
One year, we had especially tight quarters to work in, and toys were dwindling faster than we could get bags packed. My first year or two, those circumstances would have kept me up at night in between the nightmares of creepy clowns staring at me (seriously, no one wants those, save yourself some money and your children some trauma); but I knew things would get done and everyone would be happy — mostly.
What I didn’t anticipate, however, was how one particularly unhappy lady and a box of Legos would send me straight into Grinch-mode and then, fortunately, back into Cindy Lou Who.
It started with a toy bag for a 12-year-old girl that was brought back to me because the parent wasn’t happy with it. I was always happy to fix a bag when we made a mistake, so I looked in the bag, verified it was for only one child and the age, and sent it back with a volunteer. It seemed to be a suitably packed bag for a preteen girl and wasn’t missing any items.
Several minutes later, the same volunteer came back and told me the lady was still unhappy with her bag, had riled up those in line and was using some pretty strong language in the process. I could see volunteers getting frustrated by what, on the surface, looked like a woman ungrateful for the gifts she had been given. It had always been important to me to shield them from the one or two rogue people each year that weren’t happy, but with the tight space we were working in that year, it was impossible — there was simply no place to pull her aside without an audience of other parents or volunteers. I opted to bring her inside the toy warehouse, something I rarely did, because I wanted to avoid a scene in front of a crowd.
“All she wanted was Legos, not this girly junk,” the lady snapped at me.
I looked at the bag again with this additional context and, not being a “girly” girl myself as a child, I saw the problem — everything in the bag was pink and there were no Legos, just a bracelet making kit and some other items. Unfortunately, I also knew our supply of Legos had depleted quickly as they are an always popular gift. I explained we do our best to fill each request, but sometimes, there just simply isn’t enough of each item to fill every specific request but that we’d do our best to find something less pink.
I sent a 19-year-old boy named Brian to the back to do another search and see what he could find. He was part of our church and said he was volunteering because his grandmother forced him, even if I knew better. What he lacked in communication skills, he made up for in his ability to work hard. I knew he would look until every remaining toy was turned over. As odd as it sounds, he was one of my best “shoppers” in the warehouse.
While he was searching, I sat with the lady and listened. Five minutes before, I was ready to take her bag from her, but once she sat down, I began to see the stress and anxiety pour out of her. I reassured her again and told her I understood how important our children are to us. Finally, the walls began to fall down.
“These are the only gifts she’s getting for Christmas this year,” she said.
She told us her husband had been laid off from his job unexpectedly and hadn’t been able to find a new job yet. They had never needed assistance, had no other family nearby and asking for help had been hard for her. She wasn’t sure how they were going to survive much longer on her paycheck alone.
When she began crying, I could see a light go on in the minds of the volunteers who were working nearby — it was as if they realized for the first time that Christmas could be stressful on a level much deeper than Black Friday shopping lines and porch pirates, especially when you have children you want to protect from harsh realities of the world. Her daughter knew Daddy lost his job, which is why she didn’t ask for much for Christmas, but she didn’t know just how close they were to being on the street or without the ability to put food on the table.
It wasn’t really Legos this lady needed, it was compassion and someone to listen.
When Brian returned with the newly packed bag his entire face was filled with a smile. He pulled out a container of Legos that was found sitting on a table of miscellaneous items, a last minute toy drop-off another employee had just placed there without us knowing. Of course, the Legos came in a big plastic PINK box, but a quick inspection showed they were the normal, colorful building blocks on the inside.
As unbelievable as it sounds, it really was a Christmas miracle.
After a quick laugh at the pink container, more tears were shed, hugs were given and we were able to provide this lady with additional resources to help with rent and food in the coming months until her husband could get back to work. I was finally able to let out a sigh of relief at a disaster averted.
It might have been just a box of Legos, but it ensured a smile on a 12-year-old girl’s face on Christmas morning, and a reminder that compassion and grace can build more bridges than all the building blocks in the world.
(Melissa Felkins is a former reporter at Kentucky New Era and now works as a crime analyst in Louisville. She spent part of her childhood roaming around Fort Campbell with her grandparents and now roams around Kentucky looking for good Christmas tamales and is open to suggestions.)