BOSTON RANKS as one of the richest cities in the world, making the poverty and need around us all the more glaring. In this city of abundance, the poverty rate is over 20 percent, while statewide about 10 percent of households live below the poverty line. And beyond the stark statistics are the sudden and very human reversals that often strike families: lost jobs, substance use disorders, unexpected illness.
Family struggles, which often affect children most acutely, come into sharp relief during the holidays. It’s one reason why the nonprofit Boston Globe Foundation is the sponsor of Globe Santa, a 61-year-old charitable initiative that has brought immeasurable joy to nearly 3 million children in need across the Greater Boston area.
Ola Kurbaj’s three kids are among them. Kurbaj is an immigrant from Syria who lives in Salem and works part time in a doctor’s office in Beverly. If it were not for Globe Santa, a program that gives toys, games, puzzles, and books to low-income families during the Christmas season, her kids would not have any presents to open.
“Back in our country, we never received anything for free,” said Kurbaj. She said her father-in-law was killed by an ISIS attack three-and-a-half years ago. “We came to this country and we started feeling like humans. People in this country, they don’t appreciate what they have, every day we’re thankful that we’re living here.”
There was also the Haitian single mother of two boys, in Brockton, who wrote a letter to Globe Santa this season for the second year. She works part time as a nursing assistant, and barely makes enough money to get by. This year, she sent Globe Santa a gift herself. “Although I cannot thank you enough, inside there is a little flag from the country I came from to say, ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart.’ It doesn’t cost, please accept it!” she wrote.
Globe Santa’s gifts are made possible by the generosity of donors, who collectively have raised, on average, about a million dollars annually in recent years. Donations are accepted year round, online or by US mail. Last year, more than three-quarters of the program’s donations were $100 or less. Globe Santa receives about 20,000 letters from families every holiday season, with roughly 35,000 children receiving presents on Christmas day.
The letters, sadly, reflect the pain often described in newspaper headlines. “Back in 2011, it was people struggling with unemployment and foreclosures. Then, in later years, it was escalating health care costs and its burden on families. More recently it’s been the opioid epidemic and rising housing costs,” said Tammy McFarland, a Globe Santa staffer who reads the letters. Tom Coakley, also part of the Globe Santa team, agreed: “We’re seeing a theme: grandparents taking care of their grandchildren instead of the parents, and a big reason for that is the opioid crisis.”
While those letters represent an ever-changing landscape of need in the region, there is a common denominator: Globe Santa is only possible because the many who are fortunate and generous recognize that in helping others we make the community just a little more whole.