Christmas 1994 was Jennifer Nelson's first as an assistant at Chicago's Interfaith House, a center for homeless adults who have just been discharged from the hospital. When she gave a simple gift to a resident, the woman started weeping. "She told me that no one had ever given her a Christmas present before," recalls this gracious 45-year-old mother of six. "Right then and there I vowed to help make Interfaith House a warm, giving environment."
Over the years Jennifer ascended the ranks to executive director of Interfaith House, picking up both a bachelor's and a master's degree along the way. The position involves fundraising, providing spiritual and emotional support—and playing Santa.
"Many of our residents have no family or have burned bridges with loved ones, which makes Christmas particularly depressing for them," says Jennifer. "They need to feel like someone cares."
Holiday prep starts the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when staff, the board of directors, volunteers, and residents blanket all three floors with trees and decorations. The week before Christmas there's a daylong party with food and a talent show put on by residents. Last year a group performed a particularly moving skit. "They dramatized their first days at the center, when they were angry and treated the staff badly," she recalls. "Then they showed us how they became cooperative and hopeful when they realized we care. The skit let us know how much Interfaith House means to them."
At around 4 p.m., Jennifer makes her entrance dressed as Santa Claus. The 40 staff members are her elves who pass out gifts to all 64 residents, calling each person by name to receive hats and gloves, journals, pajamas, headphones. In the evening the board of directors joins the festivities.
On Christmas Day Jennifer's family, as well as relatives of some of the residents, come for dinner. Instead of loading up trays cafeteria-style, as usual, the residents sit at the tables, says Jennifer—"It is our pleasure to serve them."
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