The hustle and bustle at St. Francis is in overdrive as more donations arrive during this holiday season. The season of giving, a time of joy, happiness, and cheer can be felt all throughout St. Francis House.
Santa Claus paid an early visit to all the men and women who honorably served the great nation of America. At the Vet to Vet meeting, held on Wednesday, December 21, 2016 was called to order, one look around the room and anyone could see the veterans needed a cheer in their hearts.
The holiday season can be especially hard on our fellow veterans in the homeless program at St. Francis. One can imagine the feeling of not being with family on such occasions. The veterans have become accustomed to spending a holiday or two or maybe more away from their families fulfilling their duty to their country. This does not mean that it gets any easier to be without them.
After roll was taken and all veterans were accounted for, the facilitator that evening, Mr. Gary Clemmons announced that there was something special in store for the veterans.
“OK, ladies and gentlemen, we at St. Francis have a surprise for every single veteran tonight,” he announced.
The looks now in the veterans’ eyes was that of wonder and “what now.” Throughout the holiday season many organizations showered the veterans with love and compassion. They had organized holiday meals which included everything and its trimmings. They even had live music for the veterans to enjoy as they dined together in bliss. The veterans were happy to enjoy a meal with their now family at St. Francis. This holiday season was not shy of the occasional “pop-up” visits from UAMS and The Knights of Columbus all bearing gifts and the joys of giving in their hearts.
This specific evening was quite different. The room started humming with murmurs between the veterans as they all sat with looks of confusion in lieu of their announced surprise.
Mr. Clemmons asked for the women veterans to proceed to the elevator to meet one of St. Francis case managers Ms. Juanita Tillman on the second floor. The female veterans exited the chapel and headed towards the elevator. They reached the second floor and were met with hugs and smiling faces from Ms. Tillman and Mrs. Linda King. It is no secret to the residents of St. Francis, whenever Mrs. King is present, there are pictures to be taken to capture whatever was to happen in the next moments.
Ms. Tillman shares a special connection with each veteran she handles as a client. She could see the gloom and sadness in each of the veterans’ eyes and said full of cheer “Smile ladies! Santa has come!” The female veterans looked at each other and at the male veterans who had now made their way upstairs as well.
What is going on they all wondered? They were all led to a room that was filled with gifts for each one of them labeled with their names.
“Merry Christmas!” exclaimed the staff. They proceeded to hand each labeled gift to the rightful veterans.
The first to the table was a 27-year-old female veteran with 4 children. As she approached the table, there were tears in her eyes because going home for the holidays was out of the question at that moment. Ms. Tillman handed her a bag full of gifts that were bigger than the veteran herself and there was more to follow. Four huge bags labeled for this one veteran and her children were handed to her which turned her tears into tears of joy. She cried as Mrs. King snapped a picture and Ms. Tillman told her that all these were for her and her children.
As the veterans were handed gift after gift, the atmosphere soon filled with child-like glee. And happiness. “Look what I got!” one veteran shouted.
Everyone passed looks of gratefulness and asked each other what they had received. The evening turned into night as the veterans continued to go through gift bags and unwrap presents.
The holiday season is about giving more than receiving. St. Francis has given the greatest gift of all, a place to call home and acceptance into the St. Francis family. It means more than a few words can describe when a veteran receives the things that they need most. One veteran said, “St. Francis is the light at the end of a dark path,” and receiving just the simplest of items make him feel cared for and not forgotten.
Thank You to all for such a great holiday season at St. Francis and Happy New Year!
Danielle Cole, 27
U.S Army, mother of 4