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  • Writer's picturePeter Stadalsky

A True Christmas Story pt. 1 - Wrapped in Love

The real heroes of the holidays are not dressed in red Santa suits driving sleighs and breaking into strangers houses for cookies. They are out there taking matters into their own hands, not waiting for Santa or some administration to take care of it. These are the soldiers of giving, doing it all in the fog for the sake of good, not for recognition. You may not even know it, but their desk is next to yours at work. They’re standing with you in the grocery line or the quiet neighbor across the street who always waves when you get the mail; the soldiers are everyday people. They are the anonymous, everyday saints that surround us and keep the world together.

Back in 2012, a seed was planted on Thanksgiving Day that changed a Naperville resident’s life forever. Out of a time of deep hardship, Susie decided rather than pity herself to do something for someone else. Driving her car, she pulled over with an overwhelming evocation to create a Facebook group, right there on the side of the road. It was intended to be a typical blanket drive but her support was so strong it grew into a movement. Wrapped in Love was born, which involves delivering backpacks stashed with clothes, sustainable foods, blankets and other essentials to hand out to struggling people roughing it in the concrete jungle.

Every Christmas, Susie and her husband load up the van and take hundreds of backpacks to downtown Chicago. They weave the streets, crossing State Street, Michigan Avenue, even Lower Wacker Drive and Tent City. On the hunt, the duet searches out for stricken people enduring the streets; one mitten, tattered shoes, windburned face and a coffee doubled as a hand warmer. It’s on the firing lines, no degree of separation. Their approach is raw and personal.

Susie approaches a person in need and always asks them permission to give items of care. She said, “I always ask because everyone has the right to deny help, even though it is rare.” Asking them their name and getting to know them is a huge part of her duty. It’s not solely about giving them gifts, it is treating them as human-beings. Many people would be terrified to approach a homeless person, because of many stigmas and ignorance. What was discovered through helping those less fortunate is that many people have bad situations, and that doesn’t make them bad people.

After giving them a stocked backpack, Susie and her husband always ask if they can pray for them. If so, they also ask what they would like them to pray for. On one particular run in downtown Chicago they formed a prayer circle with the homeless man, held hands, closed their eyes and started to pray. The homeless man took over the prayer with great conviction letting the words channel through him. When they opened their eyes, a larger group of people had formed another circle around them, all interlacing hands and praying. Sometimes there is a big sign you are doing the right thing.

When Susie leaves, she says “I have to go now, but I want you to know you are not forgotten.” I couldn’t fathom that pain and loneliness, but it glows ember red in my heart to know how many people want to help others. Deep down we are all born with the instinct to give to those struggling. Something urges me to reach down when someone is face-down and pull them up. Susie always writes their names and what they are up to in a notepad. It’s not uncommon she sees familiar faces and continues an old conversation.

"Wrapped in Love is a band-aid for something that needs stitches,” confessed Susie. Although this may not solve homelessness, it definitely fills empty hearts and eases pain. The greatest part of this entire operation for Susie is the sense of purpose found in being of service. Not only are homeless people helped, but it inspires other people to want to help as well.

Even though this movement started on a Christmas day half a decade ago, it continues on everyday, every year. This is no occasional kind-gesture. Backpacks are collect and donated year around. It has became mission work in the battlefield of her own neighborhoods.

Driving across interstate-55, Susie saw a man holding a sign on the exit ramp. Busy commuters honked and screamed out their car windows as she pulled her car over. She grabbed a loaded backpack, one of many always stashed in her car, and began to traverse the ramp over to the man. Another car pulled behind her and a man in proper business attire stepped out of the car.

His face squinted in curiosity, not anger. He asked her what she doing with the backpack, heading towards a homeless guy on the side of the road. When she told him about Wrapped in Love, he responded that he would never give his hard earned money to a man who would likely purchase booze with it. Susie explained that although many unfortunate people do have alcohol and drug problems, they still need the kind-hand of those who can help. And anyone can give a backpack full of helpful things. It really is that simple. Stepping forth, she carried on to pass along one of the thousands of backpacks.

After we give to someone the outcomes of our service is out of our control. Being of service is a way for us to grow spiritually. Or in other words, to heal our soul. Attempting to manipulate the outcomes is the deterioration of that service. The backpacks are bigger than Susie and the recipient. It’s about all of us as people. Giving is contagious. When you see someone dragging someone out of hell for a second, you can’t help but consider how to be of help someway.

Months later Susie was crossing a street, equipped with a backpack, to a man sitting against a gas station wall. Coming from the other direction was a middle-aged man with a backpack heading for the same candidate. She motioned him to step aside and talk with her.

“Are you planning on giving that man that backpack?” she said.

“Yeah, it is full of clothes and food,” he responded, giving the bag a bounce to show it was full.

“Great, you go ahead and I’ll stay back. But can I ask where you got this idea,” she said.

“It was incredible. Months ago my friend pulled behind some lady on interstate 55 and saw her running a bag over to a homeless guy. He was so inspired by it that he started to do it. All of us friends thought it was an incredible idea and we all started keeping a backpack in our cars. It is so simple.”

“Wow that is a great story,” said Susie.

“Oh my god, are you that lady?” he asked.

Miracles are all around us, we just have to be open to them. Sometimes that means you start giving backpacks to strangers on the shadowy side of the tracks. That man on the interstate ramp wasn’t the only one who’s life changed. A seed was planted in his heart and it grew and spread to other people in his life. We don’t have to wait for a holiday to be a soldier in the field of life. An occasional act of kindness is a wonderful gesture, but we can all play the good samaritan everyday.

The deep thought of homelessness, shouldering the frigid winter and searing in the fire of summer, can be horrifying. Susie said that thought can either paralyze you or trigger you into action. When adversity does arise, we have the same choice. To be frozen in fear or to step out into the thick sludge of action. When life ain't a fresh tray of blueberry muffins, but rather a can of spam, it can be hard to motivate. Action is our only way out of dark waters. If there feels like there is a void, vacuuming at your chest, helping others may be the best thing you can do. It helps when nothing else does.

Wrapped in Love. Their hockey team was so overtaken by their selflessness that they wanted to help too. That year the team did their charity event and used all the money earned to stocking up backpacks for the cause.2 high school aged twin boys whom associate with Susie decided to ask if their birthday money could be used for

2 high schoolers with their hockey teams contribution.

Last year Susie handed out 129 backpacks on Christmas day. This Christmas, she hopes to give out at least one more. “Even if it’s one, I just want this to grow,” she said. Instead of the holiday stress of presents needing wrapped, Susie has a basement consumed with backpacks needing to be stuffed. It’s the best stocking anyone ever got.

You can go to the Wrapped in Love Facebook page and find out how to donate or help. You can share this article or her cause to spread the awareness. When I talked with Susie, she repeated many times, “this is not about me.” And that’s the truth. This service is not about recognition or tax breaks, it’s about coming together as people to help those suffering. If you visit her page it is filled with stories of hope of those enduring very difficult situations. Posts are filled with pictures of all the generous people who have helped and donated.

I drove past a sign this year that read, “Character is how you treat those who have nothing to offer you.”

Every time I learn about good will like this a new seed is planted. Maybe I will be able to help Wrapped in Love, or maybe that seed will sprout later. Acts of kindness like these forever change that little voice in our head. And that is the spirit of Christmas, to treat each other in a way that we should all year around. Let these beautiful demonstrations, that no one is ever too small to help, fill your heart with generosity. What greater purpose is there than giving to someone in need? This year, I feel pretty wrapped in love. Not because I bought myself or anyone else fancy gifts, but because there is a part of my heart that wants to give.

Click Here to be directed to Wrapped in Love. Hit the Like and Share button on Facebook to spread the message.

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