Wiedmer: Too many kids need better Christmases

The Highland Park Boys and Girls Club is closed today. Even Santa's helpers can use a brief vacation every now and then. Especially on Christmas Day.

"But we had 122 kids in here for a Christmas party last week," said Orlando Lightfoot, the club's director. "We gave them all hats, gloves and presents. It's the most gratifying experience I've had since I've been here."

The former City High and Idaho basketball great has run the Highland Park facility for a little more than a year. Good as last week was, most days are at least as gut-wrenching as gratifying.

"We have one family where both the mother and father are in and out of jail, the older brothers and sisters are always in juvee (juvenile court), yet the young ones come every day," Lightfoot explained. "You have to dig deep sometimes to find this stuff out, because they don't start out trusting you. They've been disappointed so often, you have to earn it, but when you really look, there are some tough stories out there."

He's also constantly told that his club is home to gang members, who are often one bad decision from winding up in jail. Or much worse.

"On one level I believe that we probably have gang members at the club," Lightfoot said. "It's a different world out there than when I graduated from City in 1989. There are a lot more things to get into that you shouldn't be involved in.

"But it's tough for me to watch these supposed gang members spend seven or eight hours a day helping these kids with their homework and feeding them snacks and believe they're true gang members. Hopefully, they just want people to think they are, as if that makes them tougher or something."

Yet he also understands that the threats to our less fortunate young people are real, both during the holidays and every other day.

"The streets," Lightfoot added, "are eating our kids alive."

It's not just the kids who need our help, though. Vanessa Blevins is the finance director for the city's Community Kitchen on 11th Street, where more than 600 or our town's homeless men, women and children will gather today between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. for a holiday feast with all the trimmings. Though surely weary from his yearly all-nighter, Santa's promised to be there, too.

"It's been a good year," Blevins explained on Christmas Eve afternoon. "We've met our basic budget needs. But we still need to raise an extra $120,000 by Jan. 15, to meet our expanded budget. We've probably seen a 25 percent increase in those seeking help from a year ago. Some of that is because we've been able to get the word out about the Community Kitchen and what we do here, who we can help and how we can help them. But some of it is because there are more and more people, particularly families with children, who need help."

Blevins, 43, told of welcoming a 22-year-old homeless man to the Kitchen a couple of days ago.

"You could see the scared look in his eyes," she said. "He didn't know where to go, what to do. I've got a son about that age. I thought, 'That could be my child.' It's scary. It could happen to anyone."

Lightfoot has a 4-year-old son, Dallas, who was hopeful Santa would deliver him a basketball goal and bike before heading for the Community Kitchen.

But Lightfoot knows that even Santa needs more help than most of the Boys and Girls Club kids' parents can provide when Christmas rolls around, what with 16 million children, more than 1 in 5 nationwide, living below the poverty line.

"I'd say that as much as 80 percent of our kids have some outside group or individual making their Christmas brighter," he said. "We have a lot of kids whose families could use some help."

Yet for all the struggles he witnesses daily, Lightfoot -- who played professional basketball overseas for 12 seasons and was the Big Sky Conference's all-time leading scorer when his career concluded -- says he sees more hope than helplessness in the young people he works with daily.

"I see kids every day who want to better themselves," he said. "They want to go to college or learn a trade where they can make some real money."

But for today his Christmas wish is more pure and simple and sweet, a wish for not only his Boys and Girls Club kids, but children everywhere; a wish that's surely shared by everyone who's ever lit a candle during "Silent Night" or left a cookie and hot chocolate for Santa.

"I just hope they can wake up to a great day with their families," Lightfoot said. "I just hope they can laugh and smile all day long. That's the way Christmas should be for kids."

All kids. Both the young. And the young at heart.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.