Christmas Diamond Haynesworth expected little from the holiday that shares her name. What she most wanted was a paint set — like the one she’d loved before her mother lost her job, lost their apartment and lost everything they couldn’t carry and had to leave on the sidewalk.
Christmas, 11, went to sleep on Christmas Eve knowing that her mother couldn’t afford gifts and worrying that Santa would forget her at D.C. General, the homeless shelter where she, along with more than 500 other children, is living.
Instead, after an article about the youngster and her small Christmas wish appeared in The Washington Post on Wednesday morning, readers by the dozens sought to find a way to make her wish come true.
Within 24 hours, The Post received more than 125 phone calls and e-mails with subject lines like “Christmas Paints for Christmas,” asking how readers could help. A student at Howard University offered art lessons. A single mother of a terminally ill child offered to buy paint out of her meager child-support payment. Formerly homeless people said they saw themselves in Christmas. And those who’d never been homeless said her story reminded them of how much they had and what a gift it is to be able to give.
On Christmas, between 30 and 50 people showed up at the shelter with bags of paints, paintbrushes, easels and sketch pads for the girl, said shelter director Michael Berry. Others were turned away before Berry could get word to managers to accept their gifts. To protect residents’ privacy, no one is allowed in without prior approval.
“An e-mail flood has been coming through,” he said.
The readers wrote of being in the warmth and comfort of their own homes. They wrote of watching their own children, nieces and nephews or grandchildren tear into mountains of carefully wrapped gifts with expressions of wonder and delight. They had so much, they wrote, and couldn’t stop thinking about a girl who had so little.
“I stunned my husband and daughter who found me sobbing,” wrote one.
By noon on Dec. 26, Christmas’s bare room with two single beds on the second floor of the former hospital building was piled high with art supplies, bags from the craft store Michaels and a professional oil-painting box. She had set up an art studio in one corner of the room and spent the morning painting with her best friend, 8-year-old Aniyah Payne.
“I tried to paint a daisy at first, but I messed it up,” Christmas says with a shy smile. She’s since filled pages with self-portraits, geometric lines and her own holiday wish: “Peace. Love. Joy.”
Aniyah turns her own sketch pad to a page of a riotous swirl of colors. “This is me running away from mean souls trying to get into my body,” she says solemnly.
Christmas crawls under the bed and pulls out stacks of watercolors, acrylic paints, markers, coloring books, a rock-painting kit, a tea-set painting kit and a loom. She adds the piles of art supplies from under the bed to the piles of art supplies already on the bed.
“I’m too spoiled,” she says, looking down and shaking her head in disbelief.
She takes several princess coloring books and hands them to Aniyah.
“These are for you.”
Readers, saying the story of Christmas’s unfulfilled wish reminded them of the “essence” of the season – celebrating the spirit of giving — also donated to the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which runs play groups and art and activity classes at the shelter, and to Freedom Schools.
Jamila Larson, executive director of the Playtime Project, said that up until Dec. 24, its Web site had received 258 visits for the month. On Christmas Day alone, after the article mentioned the group, the Web site had 458 visits, Larson said.
There have been 15 new donations since Dec. 25, including two monthly pledges totaling $3,345 and two purchases from the group’s Amazon.com wish list.
Larson said she was gratified by the outpouring of donations for Christmas and other children at the shelter.
“We get bombarded during the holidays with more gifts than we know what to do with. Then the rest of the year, it’s like a desert,” she said. “I wish people would think, ‘Yes, Christmas needs an art set,’ but then think about all the other things she, her family and the other families need.”
Larson said her group has been fighting a morass of red tape to build a playground on the old hospital grounds. Not only does it need to raise $100,000, she said, it also needs to fight the city’s philosophy that the shelter is meant to be temporary and that families should not get too comfortable there — although some families stay as long as a year.
Right now, children have no place to play inside — Christmas often just wanders the halls or turns cartwheels in the community room. And there’s no real place to play outside other than the sidewalk that connects the shelter with the nearby meth clinic and prison. Christmas and Aniyah are allowed to play tag on a stretch of sidewalk to the bus shelter 100 yards away.
While Christmas spent the day happily painting, her mother, Cartrice, has been calling donors, returning e-mails and writing thank-you notes. The two have decided to share the bounty of art with the other children at the shelter so they won’t feel left out.
“I’ve been in shock. Reading all these e-mails has been overwhelming,” Haynesworth says. “I’m just so grateful that there really are people out there who want to help.”
“Really great people!” Christmas interjects.
“And they made my baby’s Christmas the ultimate Christmas. Christmas Diamond will never forget this,” Haynesworth says of the girl she named after what she once considered the ultimate present for the holiday. “And I won’t, either.”