5 Heartwarming Stories of Community Spirit

Whether its a Christmas tree honoring our veterans or spreading holiday cheer by paying it forward, these accounts inspire helping others near and far.

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Posted in , Oct 3, 2021

Holiday community volunteers sending gifts; Getty Images

No More Humbug at Chateau Waters

For Darwin Bonn of Sartell, Minnesota, the hectic Christmas season was not the most wonderful time of the year. His wife, Rosie, disagreed. “She’d bake up a storm,” 89-year-old Darwin says. “And she loved decorating. That’s where a humbug like me got in trouble.” Every year, Rosie pestered Darwin to put up their Christmas lights. She had to ask and ask until he finally complied. “It was a big deal for her,” Darwin says. The high school sweethearts were married for 58 years before Rosie passed and Darwin moved into the Chateau Waters retirement community.

As Christmas 2020 approached, Darwin found himself feeling more apathetic than ever. “I was thinking about my wife,” he says, “and how I should be putting up the lights.” He wondered if it would make people at his new residence as happy as it had made Rosie.

Working with the Chateau Waters staff, Darwin arranged for the facades of all 72 apartments to be transformed with colorful strings. The whole community lit up like a Christmas tree. “People I’d never spoken to thanked us for what we did,” Darwin says. “It was rewarding to see the glow on their faces.” It put a glow on his too. Darwin plans to do it all again this Christmas, adding lights in the entryways and therapy suites. “My gift to Rosie is one we can all enjoy,” Darwin says. And one that still must make Rosie smile.

Santa’s Got Wheels in Panama City

Back in 1977, Mike Jones was moonlighting as a security guard for Sears. One day he went into a back room where workers were crushing broken toys for disposal. He immediately thought of the needy kids he had met through his full-time job as a detective with the Panama City, Florida, police department. “I was assigned to many child abuse cases,” he says. “I saw a lot of kids who didn’t have anything.” Mike collected the broken toys, repaired them himself and passed them out at Christmastime.

Mike’s efforts have grown into a year-round operation he calls Salvage Santa. His specialty is bicycles, and donations for refurbishment come from all over. “My goal used to be 100 bikes a year,” Mike says, “but now it’s 300. What kid doesn’t want a bike?” Got old tires, tubes and pedals? Tell Mike at salvagesanta.com.

A Tree Grows in Cajun Country

Victor’s Cafeteria on Main Street in New Iberia, Louisiana, is the go-to spot for locals who want their homestyle Cajun cooking without the hassle of a kitchen. Tradition keeps grits and French toast on the menu—and an artificial Christmas tree in the dining room all year long.

Catherine Huckaby runs the cafeteria with her husband, Victor. She says the tree had always stood bare between holiday seasons because it was a production to dismantle it completely. “You need a special ladder,” she says. The tree was simply ignored as diners focused on food and family. Until June 2021, when the Onellion family gathered at Victor’s as they often did on special occasions. They were celebrating their son Emmet’s twenty-first birthday, with Emmet video calling into the party while away in the Marines. After dessert, Emmet’s mom approached Catherine about the tree. What if it was a place where the community could honor service of all kinds?

“Mrs. Onellion comes from a line of military families,” says Catherine. “So do Victor and I. What a wonderful idea.” Catherine rehung the tree lights and put out a stack of blank cards. “We asked people to write a note of gratitude and hang it on the tree.” The patrons loved it, and a tradition was born. This Christmas, red, white and blue decorations will nestle between the many messages of thanks to our vets and all who serve in their own way.

Terre Haute’s Cross Lane Community Church Delivers

Becky Willimann organizes the lively children’s ministry at Cross Lane Community Church in Terre Haute, Indiana. Things weren’t the same during the holidays last year; they hadn’t been ever since families went into lockdown because of Covid-19.

“It was hard not seeing the kids for such a long time,” Becky says. How could she let them know their church family still cared? Cookies! she decided. “There’s just something about cookies.” Becky made up boxes with cookie dough, frosting and sprinkles, and dropped in some fun holiday activities, such as a Christmas maze or an advent calendar to color. Then she drove around delivering the kids’ church experience.

“I was thrilled when our families came to the doorway for a chat,” Becky says. Of course the kids couldn’t wait to start baking. “It was a way for our church to keep even our youngest members close.”

Paying It Forward, Worldwide

Mike Esmond of Gulf Breeze, Florida, opened his utility bill one day in early December 2019 and noticed the disconnect date for nonpayment: December 26. Mike had the money, but he remembered a time in his life when that wasn’t the case.

“Back in the 1980s, I was struggling financially,” he says. “I had a wife and three daughters. Our gas was shut off, and we had no heat the whole winter.” He worried about the people in his small town who might be in the same boat. At City Hall he got a list of his neighbors who were headed for trouble on Christmas Day. He paid 44 bills. “Now that I could, I wanted to do something to help,” he says.

Thank-yous came in Christmas cards, phone calls and text messages, and word spread beyond Florida and the U.S. “So many people wanted to know, How can I do this too?” Mike paid the utilities for 114 Gulf Breeze families in 2020. “Come this Christmas, people worldwide are going to be doing the same thing we do here in our little community of 7,000. This pay-it-forward has really caught on.”

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