Christmas Special Feature: “Her Holiday Hero” By Emil Tiedemann

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“Her Holiday Hero”

By Emil Tiedemann
December 20, 2017
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Lisa was 17-years-old when she gave birth to her first son, and 18 when she had her second. She was 22 when the father of her two sons officially left them and moved out East for good. When she turned 23, Lisa found (and lost) her first job ever, working at a cash register at her local supermarket, yet unable to make ends meet for the foreseeable future.
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For the next several years, Lisa did whatever she had to make sure her two sons remained unaware that their mother was struggling to stay afloat, drowning in debts from late fees and unexpected expenses. The beginning of the school year was a tough time in particular, but it was the Christmas season that really tested Lisa’s will to carry on.
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“I just remember dreading the end of summer every year,” Lisa said. “Not because of the change in weather, but because I knew that Christmas was right around the corner and it was going to be an uphill battle for me to make it a happy one for my two boys.
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“That first year after their father left was the hardest, because I hadn’t gotten a job yet and was entirely dependent on my mother, but she was never well off herself and so I knew I couldn’t burden her for too much longer. That Christmas, we didn’t even have a tree, and there was one gift each for my boys from my mother. I was so grateful that there was at least something for them to open up on Christmas morning.”
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Lisa had spent any extra money she had that Christmas on dinner and a few stocking stuffers. She still tears up when she remembers how happy her two boys were to unwrap their gifts, overly joyous despite their solemn circumstance. “At least we had each other,” she cried.
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By the time the following Christmas had rolled around, Lisa was out on her own, though she relied on social assistance and the food bank to keep them from returning to her mother’s cramped apartment. Life, however, was about to intervene and throw her another curveball.
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“My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer that September and died three weeks before Christmas Day,” Lisa said. “That was the darkest time in my life up until that point, and I remember not wanting to get out of bed. If it weren’t for my two boys, I probably wouldn’t have. As for Christmas, it was the last thing on my mind. I had no money, no gifts for the boys, nothing. We had a sorry excuse for a tree and a few homemade decorations, but I didn’t even have stocking stuffers for them. I felt like the worst mother ever!
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“I hadn’t talked to their father since he left and didn’t even know or care what province he was in, or even if he was still alive for that matter,” she continued. “I was definitely at my lowest, really just ready to give up.”
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Then there was a knock at her door. It was a tall man with an “Oilers toque and a big bushy beard, carrying a plastic garbage bag.” The man explained that he was from Santas Anonymous and that there were gifts in the bag for her two sons.
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“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Lisa laughed. “I thought he was some kinda madman! But, as it turns out, he was our holiday hero, no doubt. I remember thinking that he was sent to us from my mother, because it must have been like just days after she had passed that this stranger in an Oilers toque showed up at our door, like Santa Claus or something! I thought she had somehow set this up for us before she passed, I don’t know.
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“I mean, if it wasn’t for [Santas Anonymous], we would not have had any sort of resemblance of a Christmas that year. After I realized what had happened, I broke down, and I cried for what must have been four or five hours straight. I remember that clear as day.”
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Although Lisa had never heard of Santas Anonymous before that man in the Oilers toque knocked at her door, the charity had been around since the mid-50s when Jerry Forbes first began collecting toys for underprivileged children in the basement of the 107th street building of the 1080 CHED radio station (now 630 CHED).
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“Wouldn’t it be great if there would be no needy kids and every kid had a present?” Forbes asked when he came up with the idea for Santas Anonymous. “Not a used present – with wheels stuck on and repainted – but a brand new present. From that modest start we said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’ So we went ahead and for the first few years we ran it up on the second floor here just with my staff and from there it just grew and grew.”
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Jerry’s son Marty – who is still a “shareholder” with Santas Anonymous and participates in many of the organization’s ongoing activities – was only a small child when his father started the charity, which would soon see the demand for its services swell. “It grew steadily until it outgrew the CHED building,” Marty remembered, “and they started to set it up elsewhere.
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“I do know that the [‘And a Creature Was Stirring’ radio] story really blew it out of the water, and more and more and more volunteers were needed to pull this off. CHED moved into the Roper Road building after Dad passed away [in 1981], and used a huge storage area there for several years, until a group of us started to source out the new Jerry Forbes Centre For Community Spirit, which now houses Santas Anonymous.”
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That radio story Marty was referring to is a four-and-a-half-minute holiday tale written by his father (produced by Bob McCord) about a young man with a face “hidden behind an abundance of shaggy beard” who delivers donated Christmas gifts to a surprised and grateful mother. “The day it debuted, Dad called Wes Montgomery to ‘warn’ him about the content,” Marty recalled. “As you can imagine the first time you hear it (heck, even now!) that ‘trip hammer hard’ line kicks in hard…and that beautiful silence and whisper makes the piece incredibly powerful.”
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It wasn’t until many years after that first bearded stranger in the Oilers toque knocked at her door that Lisa finally heard ‘And a Creature Was Stirring’ for herself, in the car on the way home from a Christmas party. She had to pull over to dry her eyes, taken aback by how familiar the story was to her own. “I couldn’t believe it, it was like that man was telling MY story, right down to the bushy beard.”
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That story and the charity behind it are the legacy of Jerry Forbes. That legacy and its spirit continue to thrive here in Edmonton even after all these years, inspiring others to give to those in need. “When I got into radio [Dad] was my one and only inspiration,” Marty admitted, “and my goal was to make him proud of me.
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“When he died I was devastated and went into a real funk in my personal life, extremely depressed and lost. I luckily found a wonderful woman only a few weeks after Dad died, who became my wife, and when we had our two children I flipped my focus into making them proud of ME, to replace that love.” Marty, who’s been awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for Community Service, has spent much of his own time with local charities, including the United Way, the Bear’s Children’s Fund, the Astral Media Radiothon, and currently the John Cameron Entertainment Group. “So YES…he made an impact.”
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As for Lisa, she’s now 52-years-old. When she was 36, her youngest son took his own life, less than a month away from Christmas. At 37, she began volunteering her time delivering donated gifts to those less fortunate, allowing her to get through what has once again become one of the most painful times of the year for her.
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“It makes me feel good, really. I do it in my son’s honour, and so I am always surrounded by hope and good hearts around this time of year. The gratitude is addictive…those smiles when strangers answer the door to me wearing my Oilers toque and offering them their own chance at a happy Christmas. That’s what it’s all about, really.”
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If you would like to donate a new and unwrapped present or volunteer your time with Santas Anonymous, you can visit their website at santasanonymous.ca for more information. We should always be aware that there are folks out there who struggle around this time of the year, and even a simple smile can go a long way. Merry Christmas and happy holidays!
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A Creature Was Stirring read by Jerry Forbes

Watch Video HERE

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