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Staff illustration by Mark Wiedmer / Merry Christmas 2020 from the Chattanooga Times Free Press sports staff.

For the sake of privacy, we'll call them Thomas and Gerald. They're ninth-graders in the Hamilton County school system. They're also two of the 25 boys currently enrolled in the downtown Chattanooga YMCA's Youth and Community Action Program for at-risk youth in our city.

Until last week, the prospects for a memorable Christmas looked pretty bleak for both of them, along with many others in the 22-year-old program first begun by current Hamilton County school board member Joe Smith.

Then Silverdale Baptist Church reached out to Joe's son Andy, who has taken over as YCAP's executive director.

"They wanted to give the boys a shopping spree at the East Brainerd Walmart," Smith recalled earlier this week. "And not just for them, but to buy Christmas gifts for their family members."

Soon enough, Dallas Bay Baptist wanted to do the same thing, only at Target on Highway 153. So suddenly, thankfully, Christmas came early for both Thomas and Gerald, and with great bounty, much of which will be gifted to family members Friday morning.

Or as Gerald said: "It was a blessing. It's been a struggle during the pandemic."

On one level or another, the coronavirus pandemic has been a struggle for most of us since life as we'd always previously lived it disappeared in mid-March. When it comes to our community's most vulnerable school children, though, Smith has seen the impact up close and personal every day since it began.

"We normally feed our kids dinner four days a week — Monday through Thursday," he said. "Now we're feeding them two meals every day. And it's getting worse. In the 22 years I've been a part of this program, I've never seen so many people suffering. Not even close."

Asked for details, Smith said: "Well, it's tough to take a math test in the morning when you came home the night before to a house that had no electricity for lights or food in the refrigerator."

We don't like to think about such issues sitting in the comfort of our homes this time of year, stuffing our faces with all matter of seasonal treats before waking up Friday morning, Christmas morning, to a pile of gifts under a beautifully decorated tree, a suitable number of those packages bearing tags that have our name on them.

If you're one of those folks who started watching the Hallmark Channel around Halloween to get in the spirit a little early this year, this is the holiday season we tend to embrace, perhaps to the point of believing this the national normal.

But for too many Americans, especially in the time of COVID-19, there will be a different Christmas morning, one marked by probable disappointment from the youngsters for the gifts they won't receive and by guilt, embarrassment and bitterness for the adults who can't fulfill their kids' and grandkids' wishes and dreams.

Consider a moment from my days in the late 1980s as a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball beat writer for this newspaper. Hoping to write a feel-good story about how each player intended to spend his Christmas holiday, I was shocked to hear one respond: "I don't have Christmas this year. This is my sister's year to have Christmas. If my mom had to buy both of us presents every year, we wouldn't get much. This way, one of us has a bigger Christmas every other year."

The longer COVID-19 holds us hostage, the more some families are likely to mirror that UTC Moc's Christmas. But at least there was a reprieve for the YCAP kids last week.

"I was able to buy my mom something, and my (2-year-old) sister and my (6-year-old) brother," Thomas said. "I was very thankful. Many people don't do that. I couldn't have done that without those gift cards."

But gift cards to Walmart and Target were not all they received. Food City also donated cards, which immediately changed the Christmas meal plans for Gerald's family.

"Money is tight right now," he said. "With this card from Food City, we're going to do a big family feast meal. We're having a big roast and my mom's macaroni and cheese. We would still have had a meal, but nothing like the meal we're having now."

Most of us take eating for granted, but Smith said for the least fortunate among us, especially young people who still live at home, having enough food has become a major challenge during the pandemic.

"Most of our kids come from pretty tough backgrounds," he said of the YCAP participants. "One of the biggest things we've found during this pandemic is that when they're not in school, they're not being fed at home."

Thanks to some caring folks at Silverdale Baptist and Dallas Bay Baptist, all that changed last week, for at least one week, for 25 deserving young men.

But the bigger change, the more lasting change, certainly the more lasting gift has come in what the YCAP kids have learned during this pandemic, a gift that could keep on giving for many Christmases past this one.

"This pandemic has given us a better understanding that we all have the same issues right now, both at home and around the world," Gerald said. "We're all in this together. And if we're ever going to stop it, we all need to wear masks."

And count our blessings, however meager or monstrous, that we've made it to Christmas 2020. And if we'll follow the wisdom of Gerald, we just might make it to Christmas 2021.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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