In the Bag

In the Bag

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Book of Christmas Virtues

In the Bag

As I step from the damp winter chill into the warmth of Carmen’s living room, her cocker spaniel announces my visit with high-pitched barking.

“I’m in here,” Carmen yells.

I pass the tabletop Christmas tree and find Carmen sitting in her wheelchair beside dozens of white paper bags standing at attention on the dining room table.

“Did you bring the goods?” she asks.

I nod, offering her thirty packets of Famous Amos cookies. Carmen smiles as I drop a package inside each sack. On Christmas Eve, Carmen delivers them to the thirty residents of Shalom House, a homeless shelter in Kansas City, Kansas, where her friend Mary Kay lives and works. I’ve heard about the bags for months and wanted to be a part of the fifteen-year tradition.

My understanding of homelessness is the guy on the freeway ramp carrying a cardboard sign asking for work or the men lying underneath bundles of blankets on the streets of Manhattan. Somehow, the packages of cookies seem too small an offering for men who need so much.

Seventy-five-year-old Carmen fastidiously prepares the Christmas gifts like a doyenne tending to a queen. A shiny red Christmas card, embossed with a picture of gift-bearing wise men, is neatly taped to each bag. “May the Peace of Christ Be with You” is written across the top.

Carmen’s cheery disposition and sense of purpose belie a myriad of health problems. Besides diabetes and congestive heart failure, neuropathy has destroyed the feeling in her swollen fingertips. It takes her a long time to move a pen or tear off a piece of tape.

“Look at all the stuff in here,” I exclaim, noting that each bag already contains a razor, deodorant, Cheez-Its, Chex mix and other items buried on the bottom.

“There’ll be more.” Carmen proudly rattles off the names of friends yet to bring goodies.

The tradition began with Christmas cards containing a few crisp dollar bills. Over the years, she added shampoo, a pair of socks, a snack. Regardless of her meager Social Security check, she managed to increase the gifts each year.

Friends started to offer contributions. How about candy? A pair of gloves? The project evolved into a group effort involving dozens, each contributing thirty identical items.

“This year’s bags are worth seventy dollars each.” Carmen bobs her head in delight. “And they’re stuffed so full that next Christmas I’ll need even bigger ones!”

I wonder about the men at Shalom House and decide to visit the shelter after Christmas. It sits at the end of an empty lot, as abandoned as a beat-up toy. The inside is clean and homey, but unexpectedly quiet this time of morning; the men left early, hoping to find work.

But Carmen’s friend, diminutive Mary Kay, is here. Resident mother and grandmother of Shalom House, she tends its day-to-day operations with stoic perseverance— as she has for seventeen years now.

“By the time they arrive here, the men have no place left to go,” she says. “Shalom House represents hope— clean clothes, a hot meal, a bed and a family atmosphere. At least for a few days.”

When I admire the well-adorned Christmas tree in the corner of the dining room, Mary Kay invites me on a tour.

The back room is lined with fifteen metal-framed bunk beds. A stuffed panda swings from a red ribbon over bunk #14. Shirts hang from the rafters because there is no room for dressers or lockers. A large closet is full of clean shirts, pants, underwear and socks.

“Most of the men arrive with just the clothes on their backs,” she explains.

“What about Carmen’s goodie bags?” I ask.

“Those sacks are the only present many of the men receive.” Mary Kay points to a bunk bed, and I recognize the unmistakable evidence of Carmen’s trademark taped above it: a shiny red Christmas card embossed with the picture of gift-bearing wise men.

“And do the men enjoy the gifts?” I wonder, still worried that it’s too little, too . . . insignificant.

But Mary Kay rolls her eyes. “They love them. Why, the men immediately sit on their bunks, pour out the contents and start bartering. They get as excited as little boys trading baseball cards!”

Back in my car, I sit for a minute and start brainstorming about what I can contribute to Carmen’s project next year. Umbrellas would be nice. Woolly stocking caps could be good. Or maybe some hand warmers?

Sheila Myers

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