The forgotten: Reaching out during the holiday season — and throughout the year — gives life meaning

Published: Monday, Dec. 17 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Many American teenagers expect their families to buy them expensive gifts, but the teens Garrett knows often crave underwear, soap, or a prepaid cell phone that can be a lifeline. "One of our young kids is a great student, working hard, and she needs a calculator for her science class. Who's going to think of that?" she said. "I like gift cards. What I find with our teens is they have specific needs no one has thought of. No one asks them and people mistakenly think if you're in foster care, your needs are taken care of. It's not necessarily true.

"For a lot of them, it has been many years since they felt celebrated," Garrett said.

She's dealing with a girl standing on the cusp of adulthood whose longtime foster mom had money trouble and couldn't keep her. The girl, a straight-A student, was sent to a group home where her meager possessions were plundered. She fled, said Garrett, and is cot surfing, staying here and there with friends. A senior, she loves school but has no one to attend her parent-teacher conference, or pay for an SAT test or fill out applications, to talk her into believing in her future. It's no wonder, said Garrett, only 3 percent of foster kids make it to college. "How many 18-year-olds do you know who are ready to be completely on their own?"

By the river

Edward Snoddy cooks a roast beef dinner that he and other homeless advocates will take Christmas Day to the camps most people have never noticed by the Jordan River running through Salt Lake City. They'll hand out gifts in wrap festooned with elves or angels or trees. They will try, sometimes successfully, to talk those who are ill or disenfranchised into coming to programs designed to help them find their footing.

Two years ago, they talked Denise Vukas into leaving the riverbank she'd long called home.

Vukas used to be a store manager. She was a mom. She was already an adult when she started drinking and she drank until she could no longer find her way out of the bottle. Three Christmases were blurs, without family or friends or her own respect. When Snoddy and the Volunteers of America medical outreach team talked her into getting help, she was almost dead. She detoxed, but relapsed, then was hospitalized again. That time, literally dying, she looked into the eyes of her daughter and her mom, who had never lost hope, and didn't want the wreckage of her life to be their last view of her. She prayed and God answered, she said, helping her clean up her act.

More than a year later, she helps lead the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at Mary Grace Manor, where she lives and works. She offers encouragement and hugs. Her new life began more simply than one might expect: "I just needed someone to believe in me," she said. "The outreach team never judged me. They cared enough to pull me off the river."

She'll spend Christmas with her daughters, now grown, and her granddaughter. She won't be among the forgotten. And she won't forget others in need. There are a lot of them: The National Coalition for the Homeless offers a range, with caveats, of somewhere between 2.3 and 3.5 million homeless nationwide. But it's an undercount, it said, given that many, like Vukas, live at times or always outside of shelters.

Young souls

Esther and Keith are developmentally disabled but have their own apartment and get along pretty well, with some help from his siblings and an old friend, Mel Brake, who used to live next door in Philadelphia. Keith has had the same simple job for 50 years and tries to care for his wife, who has cancer. He is a little lost in the kitchen and makes uncomplicated meals, like the canned turkey he prepared for Thanksgiving. They are mostly alone, together.

She has been waiting for many years for a dream gift that never seems to come. She wants a Shirley Temple doll. In her 70s, she likes dolls with the ardor of a 7-year-old.

Brake runs their errands and often stops by. He'll visit at Christmas, he said, though they'll probably spend part of the day with one of Keith's siblings. He frets that they are lonely. But they are luckier than some he knows, he said. Lots of disabled adults have less support as they outlive family and friends and grow old.

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