The Circle of Love is not just a toy drive where we supply Christmas presents each year to 700 children in need. It is a way to give forgotten children a sense of worth and value, a way to give them an ability to dream.
We started The Circle of Love in 2004, and over these 19 years, we have touched over 8,000 children who live in shelters and in impoverished areas. You can never fully explain to a child why Santa Claus will not come to visit him and his family. For children in transitional housing, having gifts to open on Christmas morning is not so much about the toys, but about reclaiming a sense of normalcy. So many kids in shelters or in poverty feel invisible or forgotten.
I know this from personal experience.
There were seven kids in my family growing up. We were extremely poor and went without in just about every area of life. I know what it’s like to be hungry or only wear hand-me-down clothes. I know first-hand that if you come to school in the fall without school supplies or return from Christmas vacation without something new, other kids can be cruel. And that is sure what all of my siblings experienced.
But for me, there were two big turning points in my life which altered the way I see the world. And truly cemented my Christian faith.
When I was nine years old, we were living in a house on a farm in Altoona, Alabama, the farm on which my parents worked. It was Christmas night and, as usual, my parents couldn’t afford to buy us any presents. But we heard a truck coming down our dirt road and it pulled into the driveway. Two men got out and they were carrying boxes full of presents and food for my family. It turns out they worked on the farm and knew we didn’t have money to celebrate Christmas. I remember how happy it made me. And I saw the look on my siblings’ faces, that look of hope and happiness. Even though I was young, I knew that was a feeling I wanted to someday bring to others.
A year later, my family moved to Harpersville, Alabama and I feel like God’s hand led to a divine appointment. About a block away from our house, I could hear beautiful music coming from a tent placed in a church yard. To me, it sounded like angels were singing. I remember walking alone to that church where they were having a tent revival. I sat and just loved the music. At the end of the worship service, the preacher asked if anyone needed prayer. My dad had just had back surgery and couldn’t work, so we had even less to eat than usual. I felt led to stand up and ask that they pray for my family and my dad since we had so little food. Afterwards, a couple asked me where I lived. Later that night, that couple delivered food for my entire family. In fact, the members of that church ended up giving us food every day until my dad had fully recovered from his back surgery. I saw compassion and God’s love in these people giving us food.
Seeing those two events were moments of change for me. I saw what “loving your neighbor” really looked like. These events truly flipped a switch inside me. I was determined to make something of myself and give back to people.
I can trace those two events to me starting the The Circle of Love years later. We supply Christmas presents to children living in many different shelters in the Birmingham area.
Each child gets several new toys. Every little girl gets a doll, a game and some type of craft. Every little boy gets a car or ball, a game and a craft. It takes a tremendous amount of thought and planning to give out these toys. We don’t just throw toys into a bag and distribute them. We make sure everyone gets the same level and same amount of toys. If there are, say, seven kids in a family, we give seven different games so they each have something that is their very own.
These children may be down so we want them to have faith in people so they don’t become hardened. We need to give these kids hope.
We do this all out of Christian love for one another and a desire to pay it forward. I once heard someone say that to give of myself is to find life. I was so touched with this phrase that I put it on our foundation’s stationary. We all need to live our lives being kind to one another.
We have now expanded our Christmas giving to a back-to-school program in the fall. This idea started for me personally in 2004 when my husband and I would supply backpacks and school supplies to a handful of impoverished kids. For so many homeless and under-served children, education is a way to change the course of their lives. Now it’s developed into Backpacks for Success. Over the past 10 years, we’ve distributed 5,000 backpacks filled with school supplies, including to 500 children this last fall.
I live my life in faith and in prayer; on doing what’s right for others. I never gave up because of the kindness others showed me. My life was changed because of the love and grace I witnessed that Christmas night and at that revival years ago. Now I’m determined to make a difference in the lives of others.