BEDFORD — Michelle sits with practiced poise in front of a pile of Christmas decorations pulled from storage. It’s not quite time for holiday cheer on the date of our interview, but the bright greens and reds of winter trappings still add a touch of sentimentality to the air.
The Christmas ornaments, the wrapped-but-empty boxes, and even the velvet curtain that hangs behind them are sparkling in the glare of the studio lights. Even though the feasts and gifts are weeks away, the joy of the holidays is never out of season. This isn’t the first time Michelle has seen Christmas come together out of nothing.
In 1995, Michelle left her corporate job to start climbing a different ladder. While working as a temp on the bottom rungs, she met a winsome security guard and set off on a whirlwind romance. The couple married later that year and welcomed their first son in 1996. Five years later, her husband — a former marine serving in the Army National Guard — returned to full time service after his unit was activated following the September 11th attacks.
Michelle became a full-time mother, and the family learned to live in transit as their father was reassigned from base to base. North Carolina became Florida became Connecticut became home, and another son joined the ranks along the way.
As her children grew older, however, Michelle was concerned that they would never enjoy a stable social or educational environment. So when the order came for the family to relocate to Michigan in 2011, they decided to put down roots in two locations. Michelle and the children returned to her home state of Texas and, for the first time in 15 years, she found herself alone.
The Right Community
“[My eldest] had just started playing football and he was in the IB program. I just didn’t want to risk him backsliding because of a move partway through. We decided that it would be better to have the kids and I come here and establish a stable home,” Michelle said. “At that point, although still married, I was a single mom.”
Michelle set out in search of a diverse community that would support her son’s interests, focusing on North Texas so that she could live near family in Houston without becoming dependent on them. She found Trinity High School in an article about Dallas-area schools. Faculty at THS had recently helped to equip a student with disabilities for service on the drumline, and their loving commitment to students won her heart. She was even more delighted to find that the district boasted a socially and ethnically diverse enrollment, a touted IB program, and — of course — the Texas State Football Champion Trinity Trojans.
“I wanted them to be around different ethnicities and around different economic backgrounds so that they could see that it’s not always good and it’s not always bad. So we moved here for Trinity High School, honestly,” Michelle said, remembering that the transition was especially difficult for her eldest son, who was in ninth grade at the time. “He didn’t like the idea of moving, but we couldn’t stay where we were. It just wasn’t feasible for us to stay there. So coming here — once he found out that Trinity was recognized — he was happy about that.”
Michelle and her boys moved into an apartment complex near their school of choice and began looking for places to get plugged in. As was her habit, Michelle set out to connect with the school district, the nearest military base, and a local church. In the last regard, First Baptist Church of Euless was an easy choice.
The church campus was right next to their home and the youth ministry served a sizable group of Trinity students, many of whom were already befriending her sons. With the help of a few friends, the family settled in as best as they could.
But moving in and settling in are two very different things.
“I needed to make sure that the kids were stable, and then being a Full-Time Mom, I had to transition into being a working mom. Because you can’t survive with no money,” Michelle recalled. “Being a Full-Time Mom is a great job, but you don’t get paid very well.”
The Twelve Year Gap
After making her family the priority for more than a decade, Michelle found herself in a difficult spot. She hadn’t held a job in twelve years, and in the span of that decade both Michelle and the workplace had changed. Despite living as affordably as possible — no cable, no cell phones, the most basic internet access for school — the family was eating into their savings more quickly than they could replenish them. Even with support from their deployed father, the boys qualified for the school’s reduced-price lunch program.
“All the savings that we had come down with were gone. We had nothing.” Michelle said. “I put in an application at Target and finally got a little job in human resources. But I wasn’t going to start until the end of October, so then I thought I really did need to go and get some help.”
Even while she was struggling to feed her family, Michelle had resisted asking for assistance outright. She had heard about 6 Stones through her Connection Group at First Euless, but “pride got in the way” and kept her from visiting the New Hope Center. Michelle stretched herself thin until Cindy Jones, a 6 Stones board member, encouraged her to allow someone else to help. It took a couple of reminders, but Michelle eventually came to New Hope.
With support from 6 Stones, Michelle kept the pantry stocked enough to get by and even found clothing for work. Target required that she wear a red shirt and khaki pants, both of which were in short supply until the working mother’s first visit. Armed with only a few red shirts and a single pair of pants, Michelle set out to keep her children in position for success.
They had enough to survive, but the future was uncertain. The part-time contract Michelle had accepted was due to expire at the end of the holiday season in January, and Christmas was coming quickly. Her family in Houston were going through a medical crisis of their own, and she didn’t want to add to their troubles.
“As a parent, you want the best for your kids. And when you think you’re not providing for them what they need or what they’ve come to think is a priority, you tend to step away. You tend to hide,” Michelle said. Then, thinking about Night of Hope, she added: ”That one night, I felt like I was able to provide. With that one night of them giving me things, I felt that, if I could make it through this one night… [the volunteers] genuinely wanted to be there, and in a time of uncertainty, you really need to have somebody who is genuine. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen the next day.”
Hope, Wrapped in Garbage Bags
As fondly as she remembers the event now, Michelle was skeptical about Night of Hope. Initially, she wanted to turn down the invite. But Jones convinced her, once again, that accepting help was not a cause for shame. Still, the struggling mother feared the judgement that would come along with the Christmas party.
She wondered what people would think of her when she arrived to accept gifts and Christmas dinner from strangers. She still remembers pulling into the parking lot outside of Campus West, where the party for children from her school was being hosted.
“I was so scared; I didn’t know what to expect. I was still a little bit ashamed that I had to ask for help.” she said. “Sometimes, when you’re going through a bad situation, you feel like you’re the only one. And that you’re the only one who can fix it. But walking in, it was kind of a ‘ok, I’m not the only one. Nobody is going to be judging me as much as I think that they are. Because they’re not here to judge. They’re here to help. They’re here to love on me…’ it was kind of incredible.
“I had been struggling with getting food on the table because I was still working Part-Time — not a whole lot of money, not a whole lot of hours — so they gave me a lot of food. And then, the gifts! And honestly, it wasn’t the food and the gifts that got me. It was the love and the understanding and the ‘it’s ok,’ that I got out of it. That made me realize that I did need the help, and that it was ok to accept the help. It was ok to be in a spot that’s hard, just don’t stay there!”
As the end of her part-time contract loomed, Michelle took solace in the knowledge that her community would support her, no matter what happened. She had a group of women at the church who would take care of her, and many of them were helping her to search for a more reliable job.
She enrolled in Career Solutions, an employment-oriented class hosted at First Euless, and learned how to explain that long gap on her resume. Having her pressing needs covered helped Michelle to focus on the job search, and she got good news just before the end of the season. Target offered her a job.
The next winter found Michelle still working hard hours for small pay in a part-time position with the company, but she was grateful to have a constant source of income. The search for full-time employment continued, supplemented by her expanded hours. When the offer came to sign up for Night of Hope in 2012, however, Michelle turned it down.
She wanted someone else to be blessed with the same joy and hope that had gotten her through a season of doubt. But she wasn’t finished with the program yet.
Epilogue: Passing on the Gift
Night of Hope is furnished in part by volunteer shoppers who help to purchase gifts on site in local stores. When those volunteers arrived at Michelle’s Target in 2012, they found an entire lane reserved for them and a break room set aside for their lunch.
They also found a grateful mother, dressed in her Target red, bustling around the store to check on their needs and carry bags out to the truck. Those things had never been part of the experience until Michelle got involved. We still run our shopping days the way she taught us to run them.
“I was so excited to see them. I know that sounds funny, but I really was,” Michelle said of that first shopping day. “I knew what they had done for me the year before; that they given me hope, they had helped me when I was down, when I was doubting. That they had prayed for me.
“I wanted somebody else to feel the joy and the hope and the wonderful feeling that I got out of the Night of Hope. That year was a little slimmer on the gifts. But there was more hope. And there was more joy. Because we realized that it wasn’t about the gifts. It wasn’t about the food. It was about the love.”
Michelle’s friends in the community eventually came through. A football coach at Trinity helped the family to find and move into a house when the rent rose sharply in their apartment complex, and the women from First Euless helped her family to relocate. She still remembers how it felt to discover that one of them had come to set up their beds during the move so that they would all have a place to lay their heads at the end of the move.
Another friend referred Michelle for his job at Time Warner Cable after receiving a promotion, and after another year of contract work — for the first time in her life — the single mother had a salary package with benefits. She works at Time Warner today; still serving in Human Resources.
That’s fitting, really, given her new appreciation of the most human resource of all.
“Night of Hope really did give me hope, by doing so much in my life that was behind the scenes,” she told us. “I hope that in my experiences, that I have brought hope to others. And joy as well. Because I know that, without joy, you can get into a deep pit really fast. Without hope, that pushes you down even further… although these people were not my family — not by blood — they were my Christian family. They were my community. And they were willing to step out and help me during my temporary need.
“My goal now is to increase my giving, but I will never decrease my volunteering. I will always be there when they need it. You ask me, I will be there. Because I know that this is an important thing for our community and for people that need it.”
As the holiday season approaches, we hope you find joy in serving this community. Just like Michelle.