Last Christmas, I did something I've never done in all my 63 years on this earth.
I went swimming on a scorching hot summer day in Orange, New South Wales, Australia. My cousin Lynn and her family live in Orange, which is a beautiful town about four hours' drive inland from Sydney.
I had planned this trip for more than a year, and although I wondered if I would miss my white Christmas, I soon realized that shovelling snow, scraping windshields and doing 360-degree spins, only to land on my back on the ice, were all things I could gladly live without.
Yup, Christmas Down Under had all of that winter stuff beat. I couldn't wait to see how Santa Claus and his reindeer would manage, especially in the Aussie Outback where it can be dry as a bone.
All my concerns were cleared up Christmas morning, with more gifts under my cousin's tree than I could count as her grandchildren squealed as they tore into the brightly wrapped packages.
It was a perfect family Christmas. Different, but still Christmas in every way, and I recall thinking, "everyone should be around family, and be this happy and comfortable every Christmas." Then I thought again, and wondered, "Why isn't everyone this happy at Christmas?"
Just the other day, I was going into the bank to draw out some cash, when a man who was standing outside a grocery store asked, "Sir, would you like to buy a couple of Beatles CDs?" I hurried past him, saying, "No thank you," but as I drove away, I was haunted by the look in his eyes.
They showed me a person down on his luck, but too proud to beg. He was trying to sell whatever he had, perhaps to buy some bread to eat. I'll never know now what he wanted the money for, but I didn't bother to ask him, either.
Shame on me!
When I drive home at night, I see the homeless panhandling at busy traffic intersections. Sometimes I donate a bit of cash. Most of the time I don't, and as I drive by I mutter to myself, "Why don't they get a job?"
Then I realize that is simply beside the point. The point is they are cold. They are hungry. They are alone. A five-dollar bill and a friendly smile wouldn't even put a dent in my wallet, but it could buy some hot soup, coffee or a hamburger. Better, it would send a message that someone cares.
After an enjoyable evening dining with my friends, I snuggle into my warm, comfortable bed. Drifting off to sleep, I suddenly realize that many of those people from whom I looked the other way are also hunkering down for the night. They get to sleep in old abandoned buildings, under city bridges, in a cold doorway, or if they are lucky, in a heated bus shelter. I know I have blankets and pillows to spare, and suddenly I don't sleep well that night.
Shame on me again! I could have bought one or two people a hot meal. I could have given up some of my blankets to keep someone warm. I could have smiled and befriended one or two people.
I won't be in Australia this Christmas, but I'll still be with family when I join my sister, two sons and future daughter-in-law in Calgary. And again, I'll be well-fed, warm and among friends.
This time, however, I plan to make a difference. I want to help out as much as possible, to bring some happiness and hope to those people who are alone, hungry and cold.
I started by making a donation to Pennies From Heaven right here at the Free Press. All the money collected will be distributed to the Christmas Cheer Board and Winnipeg Harvest, with the express purpose of making this Christmas one of happiness for those who are, through no fault of their own, in need.
Maybe you'd like to start there too. Many people bring coins to the Free Press office at 1355 Mountain Ave. Our receptionist Linda Clawson is ready to take the coins, but if I'm in the building and not on assignment, I'll personally thank the donors as well.
Our angels this week:
In memory of Frank and Polly Chervinski
In memory of Bert and Eloise Patterson
Charleswood Ladies Daytime Curling
Helen and Willem Thys
Judith and Gary Krushen
Martha and Oswald Borchert
In memory of Tom
Barb and Wayne Leslie
Bruce and Lori Christie
Dawn and Charles Sherbo
Tim and Judy Walker
Gregg and Mary Hanson
William and Theresa Parrish
Carolyn and Richard Blair
Laureen and Helmut Unruh
Daryl Rosin and Judith Blair
Patricia and Thomas Rathwell
In memory of Lilian Carrigan
Canada Border Services - Main Street office
In memory of Alan Melnic
Robert and Jean Turnbull
Thomas and Eileen Hutchison
How to donate
You can drop off coins, dollars or cheques at the Winnipeg Free Press at 1355 Mountain Ave. We also have drop-off bins near the front entrance of every Wal-Mart store in the city, as well as a giant penny on the second floor of Portage Place.
You can also mail us a cheque made out to Pennies from Heaven, 1355 Mountain Ave., Winnipeg, R2X 3B6.
You will get a charitable tax receipt from either the Christmas Cheer Board or Winnipeg Harvest.