How you are giving one precocious teenager the chance for a brighter Christmas — and a better future.
“When I was a kid, Christmas was awesome,” says Isis, a 14-yearold guest who lives at Hope Gardens with her mother, Shwonna, and five younger siblings. “It was all about family, food, and presents — I usually got whatever I wanted.”
But one of her favorite memories every year was singing Jingle Bell Rock at the top of her lungs, at school or around the Christmas tree, whether anyone joined in or not. It just made her happy.
That happiness, however, was always short-lived. Her father was a controlling alcoholic who emotionally, verbally, and physically abused Shwonna. “It made me really angry and really sad at the same time,” Isis recalls. “Sometimes I wanted to hit my dad. I wanted to scream, ‘Why are you doing that to Mom? You’re supposed to love each other!’”
Three years ago, Isis’ parents finally split up for good. The abuse and tension ended in her family, but new challenges emerged. Isis’ mom suddenly struggled to make ends meet. The instability left Isis angry and hurt — and she showed it by carrying a chip on her shoulder and keeping people at a distance.
After a second relationship failed last year, Shwonna had no choice but to bring Isis and her five other children to Union Rescue Mission and then Hope Gardens. As Shwonna slowly started putting her life back together, Isis grew as well. “I wasn’t prepared for any of this,” she admits. “I had so much doubt. But the people here really loved and cared about me. They taught me to be more understanding, and how to stop being angry and intimidating people all the time. I’m learning to love people again. I’m a good kid.”
Today, the 9th grader and near straight-A student is focused on a better future: She wants to attend Stanford University someday so she can become a surgeon. But this Christmas, she’s still just a kid, dancing around the Christmas tree, singing Jingle Bell Rock at the top of her lungs.
My Christmas Present — I Matter
The Christmas present Shwonna wanted more than anything, as a teenager, was for her mom to look her in the eye and say, “I know you and I love you.”
“To be honest,” she recalls, “I didn’t want gifts. I just wanted my mom to be there. To try. But then she started drinking more. So when I really needed her, I didn’t matter anymore.”
At 15, Shwonna felt lost. She never really knew her father. And her mother was unable to give her the guidance she needed — no surprise, given that her mother was raised in the foster system and had jumped from abusive relationship to abusive relationship her entire life. She didn’t know how to have a healthy relationship with a man, so how could she guide Shwonna?
A year later, Shwonna was pregnant with her first daughter, Isis, and living with her 19-year-old boyfriend, who was verbally and physically abusive, controlling, and an alcoholic. Fourteen years later, she left him, but soon got involved with another abusive man. When that relationship ended, Shwonna and her six children were homeless and came to Hope Gardens in May 2015.
That first Christmas at Hope Gardens was difficult for Shwonna. “I cried a lot,” she recalls. “I felt so alone. I was homeless, I had nothing, and I kept wondering, ‘How could I do this to my kids?’”
But the staff and other mothers surrounded Shwonna and her children with love and understanding. They listened and encouraged her, and Shwonna began to feel seen and heard for the first time in her life — like they really cared.
This Christmas, Shwonna is in school, studying child development, so she can one day open her own day care.
“Hope Gardens has shown me that Christmas is all about caring, giving thanks to God, and showing one another how much we love them,” Shwonna says. “It’s not about gifts, it’s about ministering to people. But I did get one gift: People I didn’t know accepted me and loved me for who I am. They showed me I really do matter. That was my Christmas present.”
Because of You For 125 years
Caroline’s Story, 1995
Darkness was falling when Caroline arrived at Union Rescue Mission on Christmas Eve. A tiny baby cried in her arms, and two children 8 and 5, clung to her legs, trembling.
“Can you help us? It’s almost Christmas and we have nowhere to go,” Caroline tearfully asked.
As they stepped inside, they were immediately surrounded by festive decorations: trees with twinkling lights and glittering ornaments, garland and wreaths with bright red bows, and Christmas cards.
After Caroline and her children ate a delicious holiday meal, the children sang carols and played games while Caroline visited Union Rescue Mission’s Christmas Store — where parents experiencing homelessness can shop for a special gift to make their children’s Christmas wishes come true.
Later, there were candy canes and homemade cookies, and before bed, a staff member read the true story of Christmas — Christ: A Savior is born. Afterward, the children were tucked into bed, and when they fell asleep, Caroline put the presents she had selected for the children from the Christmas Store under the tree.
“If it wasn’t for Union Rescue Mission, we would be out on the streets right now,” Caroline said, wiping away tears of gratitude and relief. “Seeing my children so safe and happy is the best gift a mother could receive.”
Give Hurting People The Best Gift of All - New Life
For people experiencing homelessness, Christmas is often a painful time without presents, food, a home – or even hope. But this year, you can give them real hope.
Your gift of $132.55, $60.25 or more will provide holiday meals, clothing, shelter, and even the chance for a newly transformed life, so please give generously today.
The season of Advent and days leading up to Christmas is a wonderful time for thoughtful reflection and joyful anticipation as we celebrate the birth of our Savior. This holiday season, please sign up to receive Rev. Andy’s Advent series of daily devotional emails. Each day from now until December 25, you’ll receive Scripture and messages focused on the joy of the season.
Give Kids Experiencing Homelessness Joy at Christmas
The holidays can be difficult for families experiencing homelessness. But for 26 years, Union Rescue Mission’s Christmas Store has brought joy into their lives when they needed it most.
This year, thousands of precious children at Union Rescue Mission, Hope Gardens Family Center, and other agencies serving underprivileged kids throughout the greater Los Angeles area will receive brand-new gifts because of the 26th Annual Christmas Store.
For information about donating toys to the Christmas Store this year, please contact Noel Russell at (213) 673-4860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please Give Hurting People The Gift of Hope This Christmas
More than any other time of year, men, women, and children experiencing homelessness need the gift of hope at Christmas. Union Rescue Mission’s Gift Catalog is a wonderful way to give them that gift. And when you purchase a gift on behalf of a loved one, we will send them an eCard in time for Christmas to let them know you’ve made this special gift in their honor.
Alayna is just one of more than 2,000 men and women living on the sidewalks of Skid Row in Los Angeles, where she faces violence and danger every day. See how your support of Union Rescue Mission is giving Alayna hope that one day she’ll escape these streets and get a fresh start at life.
Years ago, I did a study that showed more than 95% of men and women experiencing homelessness had been neglected, abused, or even abandoned in their lives, just like Shwonna, featured in this issue of The Mission. They never felt seen, known, loved, or valued — their pain is indescribable, and they look for anything to take that pain away.
Yet only Jesus can take that pain away. When He was born that first Christmas, the Living God stood face to face with a broken, hurting world, looked us all in the eye, and said, “I see you. I know you and love you. You matter.” Then, when He died on the cross, He knew the pain, suffering, and abandonment we all experience. And when folks like Shwonna understand that, healing begins.
That’s what your support for Union Rescue Mission makes possible. But this Christmas, we need your help more than ever. Unless there is a significant increase in funds to the Mission, we may be unable to keep serving the increasing numbers of women and kids coming through our doors, and we may also have to turn away men who need our help.
Thank you for your extraordinary partnership this holiday season!