hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

December 26, 2013

Every day is Christmas at Emmaus

Tom Vartabedian

---- — People will ask me from time to time what story brings me the greatest joy and fortitude in my profession.

After 50 years, it’s like picking which child you love most. There are favorites but after giving it some thought, nothing could ever measure up to the time I went homeless one Christmas season.

True story. I left the comfort of my home and family to witness firsthand the plight of homelessness in my city.

I lived in a shelter for three days and two nights. The only people who knew my guise that season was the editor who suggested the assignment, my family, and the director of the shelter. Even my co-workers were kept in the dark and assumed I had just taken some vacation time.

I had a theatrical make-up artist change my face and didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I was incognito from the moment I stepped out of my home to when I returned — all the better for my experience.

I slept in their bed, ate their food, talked their talk and walked their streets during the day. Admittedly, it was the experience of a lifetime and perhaps the most tangible story I could have ever written, including the time I spent behind bars or frequenting AA meetings as an “alcoholic.”

And that’s why I built up such an affinity for Emmaus and the people this agency has served over 27 years, ever since that first shelter opened at Winter Street.

Since that time — for your edification — over 20,000 men, women and children have been assisted out of their plight and placed into permanent housing, jobs and self-sufficiency. Over 500 volunteers, 150 businesses, 190 faith communities plus 1,000 donors contribute time, services and over $400,000 in private gifts each year.

“In a sense, every day is Christmas around here,” says executive director Janine Murphy, who’s been aboard Emmaus since the very beginning. “They come here in the throes of depression and turn their lives around. It’s about people helping people and we get to see that every day.”

Christmas here is like Christmas most everywhere else. Thanks to benefactors, humanitarians and volunteers, the mood for some 300 residents at Mitch’s Place and Emmaus House is festive and fulfilling, including an elderly lot at Evergreen Place and those at Jericho House Safe Haven. That number includes 100 children under the age of 15 where Christmas matters most.

Gifts are donated graciously, but not the kind you might expect from today’s adolescents. The Xboxes and computer games are replaced by the simple and basic needs like a good pair of shoes and a winter’s coat to keep you warm.

“Many times, the parents don’t include themselves,” Murphy points out. “They go without just so their children can be happy.”

Many will break bread in the dining hall. Others might dine in the comfort of their own suites. Volunteers from Jewish organizations stop by to offer camaraderie and fellowship. Look up the word “Emmaus” in your Bible and you’ll appreciate the meaning.

It’s very evangelical when people from assorted backgrounds live and bond together under one roof and offer a kind word when it’s needed most. People who need their morale lifted suddenly find sustenance. And so many give back from which they received.

Murphy tells of a woman who gives up her $1,000 Christmas bonus to Emmaus each year because the agency helped rejuvenate her life when it was staggering. Sometimes, it’s a house fire. Other times, a job loss. We’re all susceptible, vulnerable — all a paycheck away sometimes from being vacated.

Recessions, cutbacks, economic strife, family discord. Sometimes a shoulder to lean upon or a listening ear is the greatest gift money cannot buy. I learned that for myself when I, too, tried finding my way through an abyss when I put that newspaper series together on homelessness.

I’ll always remember what one disheveled man told me the first night I slept in that shelter. He studied my face, thinking he may have known me from somewhere. I was the new kid on the block — but rather young to be homeless.

“You know something, son,” he told me. “None of us are homeless, only down on our luck.”

And so, on this Christmas Day, let us count our blessings. Let us give thanks for the roof over our heads and the families who shower us with love and affection.

Let us dwell in the House of the Lord, even if it might be a barnyard with animals. Let us remember the less fortunate. It’ll only make Haverhill a better city if people join their hands together in the true spirit of solidarity.

And if you happen to have a little extra gratitude in your life, drop by and share it with Emmaus. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, it may be the crowning grace to your Christmas.