In the days just before the birthday-Thanksgiving-Christmas chaos we like to call the Celebration Season, I got a most touching letter that helped put the spirit of these holidays into perspective for me. The story of the letter dates six months earlier, when I was trying to decide how to recognize the 10-year anniversary of my mother’s death. For some reason I felt it should be marked by my doing something that kept her memory here on earth. I mentioned this to a friend whose mother had died a few years ago. She said she called the anniversary of her mother’s death Dead Moms Day and did things her mother loved – like eat ice cream and drink her mother’s favorite wine.
I couldn’t think of a favorite food of my mother’s, and wasn’t in the mood to sip Beafeaters. I think it was Rick who suggested making a donation to a nonprofit in her memory. But which one? My mother was a juvenile defender in Memphis. That means, she defended kids whose families could not afford a lawyer. She assisted with custody battles and misdemeanors. She even defended kids against murder. She called the ones she defended, “my kids,” and she truly cared about them. She mentioned several times wanting to invite some over for Thanksgiving dinner, and my sister and I in our ignorance would simply roll our eyes. She never got the opportunity to make that dinner for “her kids.”
I did some research and learned that in Birmingham the Department of Youth Services has a campus dedicated to rehabilitating young men who have gotten into trouble. I called and talked with several people there, explaining that I wanted to make a small donation, and finally reached Kennedy, who was almost speechless at my offer. Vacca Campus isn’t a “charity” in the true sense of the word and its funds are greatly restricted. But donations, while rare, were accepted and appreciated. He said he would find a way to put mine to use. I mailed the check on June 18, 2009, the 10-year anniversary of my mother’s death, and while Kennedy said he would let me know how the money was put to use, I didn’t expect to hear from him. I knew his work and that of the others at Vacca Campus was hard and often under appreciated. He owed me nothing but a promise that he would make my donation mean something special for the boys. That was all I needed I needed to know.
Just days after Thanksgiving, at the height of our Celebration Season, in the midst of Christmas parties at my son’s school and in our home, I received a letter from Kennedy. I expected it to be an acknowledgement of my donation, but it was so much more.
On behalf of the students and staff at Vacca Campus, we would like to express our appreciation for your generous contribution in honor of your mother. We would like to apologize for our delay in sending you a letter of appreciation. Man people outside of this line of work will never know who challenging, dangerous, and frustrating a career with youth can be with oftentimes limited results. With resources stretched thin and prorated budgets, your donation could not have come at a better time.
We immediately began debating the best use of the funds you provided. One thought was an outside volleyball court but we already have a gym where we can play volleyball. There were other discussions as to the best use of the funds. Finally we decided to use the money to help fund our yearly Fall Festival held in our school gym on October 30, 2009. I regret that we were unable to invite you due to legal restraints but I can assure you that all the students enjoyed the festival. Your donation went toward an eventful day including a basketball tournament between dorms, which the winning dorm received a pizza party. Also we were able to buy popcorn for our popcorn maker and provide the students with barbecue chicken and all the fixings. Our students rarely get charcoal grilled chicken. Also, the dormitory with the best decorations won a pizza party.
The festival was a big success and the students were very grateful. On behalf of the Department of Youth Services and especially the 80-plus students on our campus, we want to thank you again for the monetary donation you gave in honor of your mother.
I read the letter out loud to my husband, breaking up a bit because I’m pathetic that way. My mother never got to host a handful of “her boys” at the house for Thanksgiving, but in a way she was able to give those 80-plus boys at Vacca Campus some holiday joy. And that was worth every penny of my small donation.