Life had not been kind to the young Shanyn Flesch McCourt. By the time she had turned 14, both sets of grandparents and her father had passed away. Then, as if fate were testing her mettle, her mother suddenly died of cardiac arrest, three days after Shanyn's high school graduation party in 1997. "I was essentially kicked out into the world," she says, "and had to become an adult really quick."
While most of her friends were celebrating their summer of freedom before heading off to college, Shanyn was fending for herself in her hometown of Girard, Ohio. With only $5,000 from her mother's life insurance policy, she put a down payment on a car and found an apartment. She had to work three different jobs in order to make enough to live on, which didn't give her the time—or money—she needed to attend college, dashing her hopes to study psychology.
When the holiday season arrived that year, Shanyn was still deep in mourning. Without her mother to open presents on Christmas Eve or share their tradition of baking and eating cookies for breakfast, she grieved alone at home, wondering if the pain would ever subside. A few weeks later, Shanyn found herself thinking about children who were even worse off than she was. Suddenly an idea came to her—and with it a feeling of hope. What if she could help other kids who had lost a parent or their home, or were coping with other hardships?
She immediately grabbed a phone book, looked up shelters and foster homes, and found two local places with children in need. "I didn't even have a full plan of what I was actually going to do," she recalls. "But I knew I was going to provide an amazing Christmas for those kids." To prepare for the next holiday season, Shanyn spent the following months coordinating with the group homes and meeting the children—all 25 of them. She listened to their stories and asked what they wanted for Christmas.
Buying so many gifts was going to be expensive, so Shanyn turned to friends and coworkers for help. "I'd explain, 'This little girl wants a Barbie. But it can't be any Barbie doll. It has to have blond hair and a puppy that goes with it," she says. Everyone was eager to pitch in—so much so that Shanyn was able to give two presents to each child. Then, using her own hard-earned money along with contributions, she threw a party, complete with Santa, snacks, dance music and stuffed stockings. When the children opened their gifts, they screamed and jumped with delight.
"That brought tears of joy to my eyes," she says. "I was so caught up in how happy and thankful the kids were that I forgot I was an orphan. I finally felt like I belonged to something."
That first Christmas became the blueprint for future celebrations. Every December since, Shanyn has organized a big bash where young guests are treated like VIPs as they make crafts, play games, decorate cookies and, of course, are handed their personalized presents. In 2009 the Angels for Kids Foundation was finally incorporated as a nonprofit. Overseeing the organization, which still relies on individual donations, is practically a full-time job, but Shanyn, 35, now a mom of three who works as a community liaison nurse for a home-care clinic in northeast Ohio, is happy to put in the extra hours. Once her kids (Samantha, 11, Brent, 7, and stepson Noah, 3) are in bed, Shanyn answers emails, writes letters and plans fundraising events. Wish lists are posted on Facebook, where she can easily ask for help fulfilling requests. Miraculously, every gift is checked off within a few days. "I make sure the kids get everything they want and then some," she says. Shanyn's husband, Chris McCourt, an emergency room nurse, chips in by buying gifts and helping at all fundraisers and events.
Shanyn hopes to expand Angels for Kids and launch chapters across the country. But for now, she already has a warm, wonderful feeling of mission accomplished. "My favorite thing at the Christmas party is passing out candy canes to the kids as they wait in line to see Santa," she says. "I hear them telling him exactly what they want. I smile to myself, knowing they're going to receive it and that I'll see the joy on their faces when they do. I can't imagine anything more rewarding."
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.