Written by Eva Howlings
A few words from Ulrike:
“Jerry and I just want to thank the community for caring so much for the children they have never met. This project coming together and so many Angel sponsors later, we realize this really is a miracle. The fact that everyone knew, this is going to help a Roma Community, and still seeing such a passion to give, shows that people are willing to look beyond race, color or reputation of people groups to see their needs.
“A very big thank you goes to Eva and Martin for making this possible and for investing so much time, resources and care into this project. We saw them mingle with the Roma people on Friday afternoon, talking, caring and getting close to them. It was like we have always worked together.
“Friday evening Jerry and I were talking about the whole event over dinner. We were wondering, what the children might be doing that evening, back home in the same old , broken building, but with their new toys in their hands.
“Yesterday I spoke to Brigitta, a mother that lives at the former Meat factory, and she told me with a big smile: ‘That evening the place was full of happy children, playing with their toys. There was lots of joy in the air!’
“We are committed to work in this Ghetto to help the children and families.
“We looked into the eyes of the kids and saw so much pain and sadness there. So, we will start going there once a week to just visit and also to teach on family and relationships. At this time we are also developing Ideas on what to do especially for the children.”
– Ulrike Lillard, Vysočanská Life Center
A Detailed Review of the Project:
Planning for the Angel Tree project began in early November, when I visited the Vysočanská Life Center to meet Ulrike Lillard and find out more about the Kladno community. The Life Center is a fun place – more like a community center than a church as I think of churches. There´s a stage with musical instruments for when they have their lively services, and classes are taught throughout the day. They have aerobics for adults, ballet for school children, and even programs for toddlers that focus on teaching things like counting and colors, in English, through song and dance. Ulrike plays guitar and sings and really gets the kids into the spirit of things. I brought my almost two-year old daughter along, and she had a great time.
The Life Center is an extension of the New Beginnings Church – a non-denominational but Christian-centric ministry which, among other things, practices compassionate outreach to the most needy – whether financially or spiritually. They offer direct assistance and hope to people who have fallen through the cracks of society – the homeless, the addicted, and the dysfunctional. The New Beginnings approach has led to many success stories, so the church has members who are in touch with pockets of the population who have the most serious need, because that´s where they came from, too. Two members in particular come from a Roma background and had connections to the leaders of this particular Roma community in Kladno, the most marginalized of all the local Roma, who were forced out of their state homes and into a large, cold factory on the outskirts of the industrial area. That´s how the idea came about to make this Christmas special for the children (up to the age of 17) of this community.
On November 19th I received the wish list from Jerry Lillard, as it had been recorded by the leaders, and after a bit of back and forth, it was posted on Expats.cz. Response was immediate, with about 10 kids being sponsored on that first day, and many more in the next few days. At around 50 the angels slowed down, and I was a bit worried if we could really do it for 100 kids. Three angels in particular saved the day by taking 10 kids each – Erika Komarova of Dermacol noticed that ten girls wanted cosmetics, and the company put together 10 fantastic gift bags full of age-appropriate things like lip gloss and skin care products. An angel who prefers to stay anonymous decided to gift those who had asked for track suits, sweaters and a boy who just wanted a silver necklace – all those kids made out very well and were so pleased. There were girls who received very nice velour leisure suits, which were the envy of their mothers as they opened their bags. And there was a young man named Martin who just wanted a sweater – and got a very handsome one, much to his surprise.
Roberts Publishing media group also offered to sponsor ten children. The donation they provided was more than enough to cover ten gifts, so by participating, they were able to help us finish the list completely and make the happy announcement that all children had been sponsored. We had just enough cash left over to make a last minute trip to Tesco and pick up a stroller for the dolls of each girl whose wish had been a baby doll. Brilliant! A kind person at the Hilton also selected four children to take very good care of, and they were naturally delighted with their respective car, dolls and personal care items.
There were many pleasant surprises. One angel decided to buy not one, but two radio controlled cars for 10 year-old Jiri and a huge supply of batteries, so he could have races with “a friend.” That was on top of giving 4 month old Vanessa a crying doll that was about as big as her (see photo). One angel decided not just to buy the sport shoes that 12 year-old Milan wished for, but really nice Reeboks. Two teenagers who wished for music got blown away: 16 year-old Michal just wanted Rap music and ended up being sponsored by a local rap artist who dropped off a stack of CDs and a bunch of issues of Bbarak magazine – in which an article was written about him. Michaela, age 17, who wanted Gypsy music was blessed by an angel who has similar tastes and picked out a stack of music – all of it legal – of some of his favorite artists. She was really moved – I don´t think she had actually expected much to come of all this.
There were many other little ways the angels showed they cared: they attached handwritten notes to say Merry Christmas, they snuck in little extras like stuffed animals or candy. Some kids ended up with double sponsors, as there were gifts dropped off anonymously by people who hadn´t emailed me to sponsor that child and have their name taken off the list – the gifts just appeared. In some cases, the “extra” gifts went to other children so at the end of the day the distribution of very cool toys was as equal as possible. Where one girl might get a real My Scene Barbie, another might get two fashion dolls that weren´t “real Barbies.” I had to use my Santa judgment. But in the end, I knew there would be shiny eyes at the party on the 14th and found myself looking forward to it more than Christmas itself.
The Life Center had a “wrap party” the day before the event, where all gifts that weren´t bagged were wrapped up. Many angels provided wrapping paper as an extra, especially for toys that were just too big to be bagged. Friday at 15.00, Ulrike, Jerry, their family and friends arrived at Kino Sokol in Kladno to decorate and set up for the main event. The owner of the Kino was the only individual they could find in the area who had a space for rent that was suitable for such an event, who would allow it to be rented for a group of Roma. Others were more concerned about damage and theft to be persuaded to allow for one evening of Christmas fun. Their loss, I say – I saw only deep appreciation the whole of the evening, even as things got boisterous and festive, there was no disrespect to the space whatsoever.
Doors opened at 17.00. We arrived at 17.30, just in time to catch a dance performance by two young men in the community – break dancing that was quite good, and some popping and locking. Fun stuff. The Lillards have a daughter, Charity, who has an amazing voice. She translated the lyrics of an Amy Grant song to Czech, and treated everyone to a moving solo performance. A Roma equivalent of Karel Gott sang a song, a trio of musicians played; there was a Christmas drama, sing-alongs, and finally a blessing from the minister, Jerry. He talked about the double gifts – the guaranteed gift, over there in a pile of toys, brought to you by many kind angels, but also the other gift – of a new life with Jesus, which was not guaranteed, but rather a choice each individual has to make for themself. And then – at last! – the kids were lined up and called up to the podium one by one to receive their presents.
The actual distribution of the gifts was handled well – it was the Roma leaders who did the handing out – not the Church people or the mystery expats. Each child was then photographed and helped off the stage, sometimes they couldn´t even carry the presents they were given. “Silent Night” was playing softly the whole time. People waited patiently, and some even chose – or were told by their parents – to wait until Christmas before opening the gift. I was grateful some kids did decide to tear into them then and there because – I admit it – I just wanted to see their little faces so much! I was not disappointed. There was so much happiness in that old theatre that night.
The moment that meant the most to me happened when I went into the ladies room with my little girl, and a Roma lady was there with her little girl. We got to chatting and then the lady´s little girl told me she had come that evening in hopes that she would get a present. I asked her what her name was. “Sabrina” she replied. I remembered her from the list and asked “You´re four, right? And you want a doll more than anything else?” She nodded. I told her she would get what she wanted. I had seen that doll just the day before, so I knew Sabrina´s new friend was waiting under the tree on stage. It dawned on me I had made that list and checked it twice to the point where I cold probably remember most of the kids and their wishes.
Two hours later we drove off into swirling, falling snow, touched by everything we had seen, and wanting to get more involved with that community. Many angels wrote to me that they´d be on board to do more if we planned other projects, so it´s only a matter of time until we see our new friends again.
Thank you, Angels, for making it so easy for us to make it so special for them!