Through a Child’s Eyes

It was a cold, miserable day in December.  Dirty slush piled up along the streets, making the walk into work an obstacle course.  Crisis Advocates work to staff our shelter 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I was starting my 4pm-12am shift.

Second shift at shelter always starts out with flurries of activity- children coming home from school, folks returning from work, parents making dinner, both doorbell and phone ringing together, pulling my attention in opposite directions. I was looking forward to when the house would quiet down. With winter break upon us, there were no arguments about homework to help mediate, and with Christmas a day away, everyone was on their best behavior for Santa.

Based on bedtimes, Sam was up way past his, and I thought maybe that was the source of his upset. Muffled crying worked its way through the house and as I debated if I should go check in on the family, I heard their door open upstairs. No longer muffled, I could now hear how distraught and devastated Sam sounded, and I could tell his mom was bringing him down to my office. The baby safely asleep upstairs, mom told me she needed a minute, depositing Sam in my office and leaving with the baby monitor.

It took us a couple minutes, Sam and I breathing together–slowly in through the nose, out through the mouth–before he was able to catch his breath enough to talk.  When kids are living in shelter, there are many things they can get this upset about- trauma and fear they have experienced, losing their homes, family members, friends, most of their possessions. Children don’t have the tools to process things like adults do, and they don’t understand why they had to leave their whole world behind. As Sam found his voice, and the courage to tell me what was wrong, I learned why he was so upset.

When his family moved into shelter a few days before, his mom helped him understand that this new, temporary home came with rules: only staff can let someone in from outside, if he wanted to play downstairs, his mom needed to supervise and most of all–where they were staying was a secret, a child’s understanding of confidential.

At 7, Sam still believed in Santa Claus, and he knew Christmas was just a day away.  Last year, he and his cousin had snuck into his mom’s bedroom, and found a stash of wrapped presents hidden in the closet.  Tonight, while his mom was giving baby a bath, Sam snuck into the closet in their room and found nothing- no boxes wrapped in shiny paper, no fancy bows, no gift bags with the tissue that allowed prying eyes to peek at the contents–nothing. And Sam began to cry.

Children in homes where abuse happens have to grow up fast, and Sam knew that his mom didn’t have very much money. At all of 7 years old, Sam was grownup enough to know about a budget and how necessities came first, but he was still young enough to believe in Santa.  He hoped that his mom was able to get him the one toy he asked for, that would more than make up for not getting a visit from Santa this year.

But he found nothing, and all the feelings he had been holding onto came pouring out.  He was so upset he couldn’t tell his mom what was wrong, so nothing she did helped him calm down.  As he was telling me this his eyes started to well up again, with residual upset, disappointment and guilt. He was little but knew his mom was under a lot of pressure already, and tonight he felt he was adding to it.

I asked Sam why he thought his family wasn’t going to be visited by Santa. “This house is secret,” he told me. “Santa doesn’t know where I am.” 

In a job where I cannot make promises to anybody; waitlists are full, funding is cut, getting resources takes time, we have no guarantees you’ll be selected, I was able to make a promise to that little boy.

mom already had presents for him, but that we also had a special arrangement with Santa- not only did he already know Sam’s family was staying in shelter, but our shelter is his first stop when he comes to La Crosse. I promised him that he would have presents to open under the tree, and presents from Santa in his stocking.

Recollected, Sam’s mom came back to the office, not sure what emotional state she would find her son in. Opening the doors, exhausted, she was surprised to find Sam bubbling with excitement.  Sam took her hand to lead her back to their family’s room, and as they were going up the stairs, I heard Sam telling his mom all about how New Horizons works with Santa, that we’re his first stop, how he knew we were helping her hide his and his little sister’s presents because he and Shawn peaked last year, and that he needed to go to bed right now, so that he could stay off Santa’s naughty list.

A night changed, maybe even a life changed, for a young boy who got to hold onto his childhood innocence just a little bit longer, all because the families and businesses in our community whose generosity makes everything we do possible.

If you would like to help make a survivor’s life a little brighter during the Holiday Season, please consider becoming a family’s sponsor.  For more information or to get involved, please contact Jen Scaccio at 608-791-2610 ext 1203, or .

To support holiday cheer in shelter, we are looking for a few items for around the house:

  • Mailbox for Santa
  • Winter-themed window clings
  • Board games
  • Tree Skirt

Please contact our donations line if you can donate the above items at 608-791-2610 ext 1300.

Story by Kim Jones, Sexual Assault Advocate at New Horizons.