By Amy Bell
Office of the Circuit Public Defender
Each year since 2014, the Juvenile Division of the Macon Judicial Circuit’s Office of the Circuit Public Defender has tried to reach some of the struggling families we have served. Our goal is to provide these families with presents, food, Christmas trees, books, art sets and/or clothing during the Christmas holiday season.
It all began with a family of nine, who we learned were huddling around a propane tank for heat, with one child wearing shorts in the middle of winter. We knew then that we had to act. Thankfully, a church group, some local lawyers and law students, a few bailiffs, and court staff rallied to help provide Christmas to the child’s family. Together, we were able to give them clothes, a small heater, and the trimmings of Christmas. In that brief moment, we were able to offer this family what others had not – hope and an answer to immediate needs. From such humble beginnings, Operation Juvenile Division Christmas began.
In that first year, 2014, we were able to help nine people. A year or two later, we were up to 57. By 2017, we had been able to reach 85 people who came through the doors of the Juvenile Court in Bibb County with a Christmas present and other holiday needs. In 2018, we hope to reach even more juveniles and their families.
Through the years, what has become an annual tradition has expanded to include young people in many different situations. They range from children we have represented in foster care, whose parents have stood up in court and said they did not want their children, to children who are about to go into custody at the RYDC (Macon’s Regional Youth Detention Center) for the holidays and who want to “shop” for their families before leaving. We have also helped whole families on the verge of homelessness.
Each year, we cross paths with more and more people who we feel should have a gift during the holiday season. Christmas is about many things, and one of those things is that each and every person has value and deserves to know they matter. When we give gifts through Operation Juvenile Division Christmas, we let our children and their families know that we see their worth.
The responses to our efforts have proved particularly fruitful. The few children who have “shopped” in our gift room before going into custody have been less agitated with court staff and the deputies who have transport duty. Parents and guardians have shed tears as they felt relief at being able to provide a Christmas for their families. We have seen numerous families who have experienced being victims of fires, natural disasters or crime victims express joy at the simple act of receiving gifts for themselves or their families. One grandmother who had taken custody of multiple grandchildren marveled at the items her family was receiving and noted that her grandchildren would be grateful for even toys from McDonald’s. (When I heard her say that, I was so ashamed at those toys I had thrown away just so I would have less clutter.)
Even more touching has been the responses of some of the children who have received gifts. Two of them let us know that they knew we really did care because we had not only given gifts to them, but also to their siblings. They had begun to trust – and with that small bit of trust, they started opening up about their dreams. One child hoped to work at a local processing plant or one day be a long-haul truck driver. You see, he did not see himself as being a future criminal. He wanted to be somebody who could be productive in society, someone who would take care of his family – something his parents certainly did not give to him.
Sometimes, we have been surprised by what the children enjoy. We have seen numerous children with no books at home – and yet they long for books, even in the age of electronics. Children who struggle with literacy were still yearning to read, improve their skills, and gain knowledge. It took me a while to realize that some of them may enjoy young adult fantasy novels not just because of the quality of the writing, but also because they so desperately longed for a life other than the one they are leading. We have been grateful for the support of the nonprofit group, Reading on My Mind, in Houston County, who has helped to provide books to our young readers.
As we reflect on 2018, we know that it has been a particularly bad year for juveniles in Central Georgia. We have seen so many young people who have been featured on the news for offenses that have landed them in the public eye. When we see so many children who have died this year or who have faced prosecution as adults, our hearts break a bit more, and we wonder how we can help the children who will cross our doors.
Sometimes, it may be starting with the message that they matter enough to be remembered at the happiest time of the year. Maybe it’s being the miracle to someone we don’t even know – whose future is still being written. Some of these children are not going to believe yet another person merely telling them they matter. They have been disappointed too many times by the parent who fails to call, fails to show up to visitation, or who fails a drug test, or by other relatives who don’t want them. We have to rebuild the trust that has been broken. Sometimes, it may cost us a little something to help restore that which was lost. For us, we’ve found it can start at Christmas.
As we move toward 2019, there is hope. Despite so many traumas the children report to us in their Life Event Checklist that they fill out when they come to our office, they show great resilience. Many have revealed that they still have dreams – and dreams in many more career fields than we’ve seen in nearly 15 years. Instead of only looking at sports or music careers, and trying to be the next big thing where the chances of success are slim, children are expressing desires to be nurses, doctors, lawyers, police officers, FBI agents, teachers, commercial truck drivers, cosmetologists, fashion designers, business owners, and more. Despite all of its problems, Macon-Bibb County is home to many children who have not yet lost the ability to dream, and for that reason alone, we still have hope. Especially at Christmas, we strive to keep that light burning for as many children, and their families, as possible.
If you wish to help, fast food or other store gift cards, sweatshirts and jackets in all sizes, GED prep and career development books, young adult fantasy fiction novels, basketballs, footballs, soccer balls, baseball equipment, jewelry, art sets, journals, etc. – are all popular items. Please contact me at the address below.
Amy L. Bell
Assistant Public Defender,
Office of the Circuit Public Defender, Macon Judicial Circuit
Thomas Jackson Juvenile Justice Center
560 Oglethorpe Street, Ste 201
Macon, GA 31201