Craig In October, Craig resident Debbie Conner started to dread the holiday season.
A week before Christmas, she was facing the bitter end of a year that was nothing but lows and feelings of failure.
“I just sort of crashed this year,” she said. “I felt like I made a lot of bad decisions about the house, and I felt like a failure. It was going to be another Christmas I couldn’t buy presents; another cold winter.”
But, thanks to the generosity of friends and community members, those feelings of foreboding never were realized Christmas Day, as Debbie’s family was warmed by the spirit of the giving season.
On Friday morning, the house was filled with crinkling wrapping paper and the shrieks of four young girls opening up bead sets, Barbie dolls and sticker books.
Three of the girls, Lael, Makyah and Eden, are Debbie’s grandchildren. Their mother and Debbie’s daughter, Kia, now live a few blocks away from Debbie and her daughter, Camie Jo.
Debbie sat quietly on the couch with a cup of coffee in her hand, trying to keep the noise level of her two daughters and three granddaughters to a minimum.
She laughed with them and oohed and awed as they opened presents she never thought they’d have.
With her older daughter, Kia, 28, now moved out and supporting her own family, Debbie was left with Camie Jo, the 12-year-old girl she adopted who has Down syndrome.
With a disabled child and a full-time course load in nursing school, Debbie doesn’t have time to work or fix up some of the shortcomings of her Ridgeview home, such her bedroom floor made of plywood, holes in the drywall or doors in need of a paint job, let alone buy extra gifts for her family.
However, two days before Christmas, several people from The Journey at First Baptist church stepped up to bring some last-minute holiday cheer to the Conner home.
Mike Burkett, of Professional Painting, had become very attached to Camie Jo and her joyous smile at church. He took a day off work this week and went around to local businesses and families to help collect something to brighten the Conners’ Christmas.
What he came up with was more than $1,000 in gifts, gift cards and cash.
Debbie used one of the gift cards to go shopping Christmas Eve and bought her daughter anything pink and girly she could find.
For Burkett, the act of giving was simply an act of giving back.
Two years ago, his family received the first Habitat for Humanity house built by the local chapter.
“We love our home, and we’re so thankful for all individuals and companies and all the people that donated time, money and labor to help us have a home,” he said. “And I want to return the favor to help someone whose in need of help. Someone who has the biggest heart I’ve ever known. She carries so much weight on her shoulders. I just know that doing what I’m doing is a way for me to give back to our community.”
On Friday morning, Camie Jo shrieked with joy at each gift, even a king-sized Snickers bar that had been wrapped in snowman paper.
She trotted around the living room wearing a pink cowboy hat that had been donated by Murdoch’s and the jeans her mother had bought her with a gift card.
“She’s wanted a pink cowboy hat for more than a year,” Debbie said. “Now she has it.”
Camie Jo also was eager to show off her favorite gift: her new pink, Disney TV/DVD player that she’ll use to watch her favorite movies.
She already had settled in to watch one of her new DVDs on it before the morning came to a close.
When asked who brought the big gift, she knew it wasn’t from Santa.
“It’s from Mike, Sarah, Tom and Jessie,” she said. “Look, the remote has a star on it.”
But, the gift cards weren’t the end of the gifts.
Aside from pink televisions and gift cards, Burkett wanted to give Conner something lasting.
Burkett, along with Tom and Jessie Cramer, of Cramer Flooring, will start remodeling Conner’s bedroom after the first of the year.
“I went over and looked at the situation she was living in and took it upon myself,” Burkett said. “Being a paint contractor, I decided I would be the one to do that. It was given to us, and we have every capability now to give back. God put her in our lives, and it’s his way of showing me I have the tools, the ability to give back to her.”
Conner was never the type to ask for help.
She said she was raised in a way that taught her not to discuss things like finances with outsiders.
“You just didn’t get help,” she said.
But when she decided that she wanted to expand her mind and continue her education, The Journey at First Baptist helped pay for her gas to get around.
The church also provided three gifts for Camie Jo, whose one wish was to get a make-up kit.
“I still feel numb,” Conner said. “The best thing for me was just going shopping yesterday. Just being able to buy them things.”
Camie Jo got her wish: six colors of nail polish, a hair clip set and several princess coloring and sticker books.
The Burketts and the Cramers said their goal was to give Debbie a stress-free Christmas, and even if it came at the last minute, Debbie was reminded of what the spirit of the holiday really means.
“It’s hard to kind of steer away from the materialism,” she said, gesturing at the girls and their attachment to their pink walkie-talkies. “I mean, it’s fun to do this part. But, Makyah asked me if Santa came last night, and I told her, ‘No,’ because he didn’t come in person. He came in the spirit of all those in the community who helped.”
She said she told the girls the story of St. Nick, who was martyred in the first century, and how he gave selflessly to those in need.
“Christmas came from a real person, who chose to give to the needy,” she said. “We’ve commercialized it, but this is why we do this. And it keeps going on. It’s not something you internalize, and it goes stagnant.”
She knows that when she has the capability, she will give back in the same manner, and the love and giving of the community will come full circle, like Burkett had hoped.
“It’s pay it forward to someone who needs the help,” Burkett said. “If it kills me, I will help make her home a more loving home."