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Appalachian Christmas

Dave Reflects on his Worst and Best Holiday Seasons

Dave Arnold

After experiencing 50-plus Christmas seasons, I can say that some are better than others. Whilie most celebrations include gifts, singing, and socializing, some stand out for one reason or another.

The worst Christmas of my life occurred about 30 years ago when the factory where I worked closed. I lost my job smack dab in the middle of the holidays. It caused me to feel somewhat helpless as a husband, and inadequate as a father to my two young daughters.

Due to limited funds, my resilient wife and I made most of the presents that year. This was a bright spot. She made clothes and dolls for our daughters and I made a miniature swing set and furniture for the dolls. We survived, but I'd rather not be unemployed again, especially during the holidays.

Coal-country Kentucky

My greatest Christmas happened about 10 years ago after hearing a sermon at my church. That Sunday, Pastor John Lender told us about his work at a church mission in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. It was called the Henderson Settlement.

At the time, the mission served impoverished coal miners and their families from the town of Frakes, located about 45 miles from Williamsburg. The average annual income at the time, he told us, was $3,500.

My congregation was so touched by the mission's struggle that we decided to contact the director, Pastor Tim Crawford. We wanted to help those families during Christmas. Pastor Crawford beckoned us to send food, winter coats, and toys.

ESPs Deliver

It occurred to me that in addition to church families in my town of Brownstown, Illinois, I might interest our education support professionals (ESP) local in helping out. As you might expect from ESPs, they pooled their resources and jumped right in.

By the following Sunday, ESP members of my local had taken news of the Henderson Settlement project to each of their churches. Soon, what was one church's project became a community project. Food, toys, children's coats, and adult clothing poured in from all directions.

Our church storage area was bursting at the seams. We had to find additional storage facilities until we could load the goods onto two huge delivery trucks. Four of us from the community volunteered to drive the 500 miles each way to the mission.

For the Children

While driving into the isolated mountain areas, it became evident how impoverished the community was. I remember one house that had a broken window covered over with a piece of cardboard. The roof had a gaping hole and was missing shingles.

It was not a vacant house because I saw a tree with a swing hanging from it. The ground was worn bare under the swing. It was obvious that a child lived there. It was hard for me to imagine what their lives were like.

When we arrived at the mission, students at a nearby school were boarding buses. It was getting dark and frigid cold. Some of the kids didn't have coats. I wondered how many of them would have a warm meal waiting at home.

At the mission, workers helped us unload the trucks.

"You know you have just made Christmas possible for over 600 kids that wouldn't have had a Christmas otherwise," one of them said.

Giving is Receiving

I'll never forget those words or the big lump they put in my throat. We spent the night at the mission, but I couldn't sleep. I thought back to the Christmas when I couldn't give my children much, except the love that my wife and I poured into making our gifts.

On that chilly night in Frakes, I was proud of how my family and church congregation joined with the townsfolk and ESPs to help hundreds of children during Christmas.

The love that one community showed to another, though 500 miles apart, made that Christmas my best ever. Love is what Christmas is about. Merry Christmas everyone!

NOTE: This column is a reprint from 12-14-05.

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(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

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