The joy of Christmas smiles

Christmas morning came 2 weeks early this year for the 51 students of Claremont’s AbilityFirst.  

The central hall—usually a bustling center of activity for the nonprofit providing programming for children, teens and young adults with physical and developmental disabilities—was in rare form as students hurriedly ripped open hundreds of presents, covering the white of the linoleum floor with a multi-hue of Christmas red and green.

“That Santa!” exclaimed 16-year-old Richard Napier in awe and excitement as the wrapping paper in his hands gave way to reveal a much-desired tablet communication device. Many of his peers displayed similar joyful reactions and, despite the inability for some to vocalize that sentiment, their expressions showed it all.

It was an occasion unlike any other the center has seen as lawyers and employees of DarrasLaw’s Ontario firm played Santa’s masterminds, focusing their yearly Christmas campaign on providing for the AbilityFirst students. Seeing the presents sitting serenely under the tree just moments before the joyous havoc was surreal for AbilityFirst’s Program Director Julie Martin.

“It’s a Christmas miracle,” she said, misty-eyed as she recalled the phone calls leading up to this moment. “We are just utterly shocked.”

It was an equally affecting moment for DarrasLaw’s Gingi Farias, whose 15-year-old son Mario has been attending AbilityFirst for the last 5 years. Each year the firm, specializing in helping those with disabilities, chooses a nonprofit to focus its Christmas giving. This year, in honor of Ms. Farias and her son, AbilityFirst was the pick.  

“My coworkers are great to begin with,” Ms. Farias shared. “I am very lucky to be around people that care.

“We are lucky to be able to be here, to be able to do this,” she added. “We are making a lot of kids’ Christmases. It’s hard times for people.”

Each student was asked to come up with a Santa “dream list,” comprised of three $50 gift ideas. It was AbilityFirst’s belief that one gift from each of the student’s gifts would be selected. DarrasLaw employees selected names, donating many of the presents students saw before them, including a set of pajamas and slippers for each AbilityFirst client. Founding partner Frank Darras pitched in to purchase the rest of the gifts, ensuring students got all 3 presents they desire.

“We thought we would be lucky if each student got one. When they said each 3, we were completely shocked,” Ms. Martin said.

Seeing AbilityFirst’s tree laden with gifts was one of many moments of gratitude Ms. Farias holds as a result of the generosity of her colleagues and boss. Ms. Farias says Mr. Darras has always been a strong advocate for her and her son, diagnosed with autism. Nonverbal, Mario uses sign language and other devices to help communicate. To help Mario with the basic need of communication, Mr. Darras purchased him an iPad, all expenses paid.

“He is a very generous man,” Ms. Farias said. “We are very lucky.”

Now Ms. Farias is helping to spread the love. A particularly emotional moment for the whole AbilityFirst team was a similar gift of speech, a Go Talk Device, given to a 16-year-old nonverbal student who has never had a way to communicate.

“It gives me chills just thinking about it,” Ms. Martin said.

No matter the size of the parcel, students unwrapped gifts in an inspired frenzy. Eleven-year-old Tristin Bowyer, an avid fan of Transformers, remained transfixed on his new miniature hot rod-turned-crime-fighting-robot held in his hand with an iron grip.

“He’s nice to me,” Tristin shared of Mr. Kringle. “If he gave me all these presents, I can’t wait to see what he brings on Christmas.”

While students shared laughter, many of the parents shared tears, albeit tears of joy.

“This is a true blessing for me and my daughter,” said Flor Cifuentes in translated Spanish after seeing her daughter’s excitement over a large Barbie Dreamhouse.

For Ms. Cifuentes, the biggest thrill was not in the toy itself, but seeing her daughter communicate what she wants for the first time, and reaping the benefit of her communication building. Her tears reflected a mother’s true pride.

“This is blessing from Heaven for me and my daughter,” she said.

It is also likely to be a moment AbilityFirst’s students, volunteers and staff will not soon forget.

“To some, these are the only Christmas presents they will get,” Ms. Martin expressed. “This here is the true meaning of Christmas.”

—Beth Hartnett


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