Abilenians open their hearts to others at Christmas
By Wendy Kilmer
With the perspective of Thanksgiving still fresh, and in the spirit of the gift-giving still to come, a sense of generosity, like many homes, glows a bit brighter than usual at the holidays. For many Abilene families, that spirit of service is part and parcel of the Christmas season – a tradition of reaching out to connect and care for those around them in a variety of ways.
Last year, about 40 volunteers at a grass roots ministry called Santa’s Workshop helped nearly 150 people in Abilene with Christmas gifts, food and other necessities. But in 2006, that ministry was just a dream – a vivid nighttime dream. One that Shelly Bilbo knew was from God.
“It was very specific, down to the name of the ministry, the scripture it was based on, what it would look like,” she recalls.
She also recalls not being immediately responsive to that dream.
“I’m a behind-the-scenes person. I don’t like to head things up. So that year, we reached out and helped a few people, but I didn’t follow through on the specifics of the dream.”
Three and a half years ago, however, a health scare refocused her thinking.
“I had been really sick and nearly died. It was a long road to recovery, but as I was on my way back, I spent some time praying and thanking God, and I really heard him say ‘Now, are you ready?’” she said. “So, I stepped out in faith, and I made a promise. I said yes.”
In the beginning, Shelly and her husband, Fred, joined with employees from their business, Quality Heating and Air, and helped take care of some of the overflow of families requesting assistance from Love and Care ministries. Soon after, they also started asking school counselors in the Wylie Independent School District about any students or school employees who needed help at Christmas.
Three years ago they expanded again as they began partnering with New Horizons to provide gifts for 20 of the foster children in their program. Last year, that number rose to 49, and this year, they are aiming to take on all 70 children in the New Horizons foster care program.
“We’ve basically doubled in size each year,” Shelly says. “Every year, God has a plan, and we always think ‘How is this going to go?’ It’s amazing how he gets me out of my box.”
This year, Santa’s Workshop has its own board of directors and isn’t staying neatly confined to the Christmas season, as families have begun calling with needs and requests for help year-round.
“Ultimately, I think it will grow to where we can be more involved in the schools and become a year-round ministry,” Shelly says.
The commitment already has grown to include early planning and work that takes place well beyond the holiday season. The board met this September to set a vision and plan goals for the year, as well as develop letters and fliers to send out to volunteers and donors and others interested in getting involved. As the Christmas season approaches, volunteers (approximately 80 this year) will gather to shop for kids and families, wrap gifts and, a few weeks before Christmas, begin delivering the goodies to the people who need them.
“We have three groups, each with their own Santa, who go out to deliver,” Shelly said “The younger kids are the elves, and they have special elf shirts they wear. When we deliver presents, we tell the family about Jesus, and we always have a certain book we read to them. Last year it was ‘The Christmas Cane.’ And we end by praying with the family.”
The Bilbos’ own three boys have been involved from the beginning, but one of their most memorable family experiences was three years ago as they delivered a Christmas tree to a grandmother caring for her grandchildren as well as an adult son with special needs. They arrived to the house and found a dirt floor and sheets as doors. The Christmas tree was the only thing the family had asked for.
“The boys were crying when we left, just having that moment of seeing other people’s hard times and what other people go through,” Shelly said. “They got to see that it’s not just about what they want, but about helping others.”
However, helping others, Shelly says, isn’t the end of the story.
“The overall goal is always to share the love of Christ,” she says. “And even though people may see it as helping others, it happens every time that you are the one being blessed by seeing people and what they go through and how strong their faith is. It blesses us and helps build our faith.”
Expanding their children’s perspective, particularly at the holidays, was a primary motivation for David and Cathie Colman as well, back in the Christmas season of 2011.
“We were put out with the ‘I want, I want’ mentality,” Cathie said “It was all about getting a phone, or having the right shoes. So, we thought let’s try to teach them something about the holiday. I was trying to build a bridge to get us past the ‘gimme, gimme’ phase.”
Shortly before Christmas that year, the Colemans presented their boys – Drake, then 12, and Sam, then 7 – with an unusual early Christmas gift: a family donor-advised fund set up through the Community Foundation of Abilene.
“We had a certificate that showed ownership that we gave to them, and we talked about what that meant. We saw it as an educational opportunity, to talk and decide how the fund should be invested and endowed,” said Cathie, who is a senior vice president for investments in the Galbraith Wealth Management Group of Wells Fargo advisors.
As the oldest, Drake was the most directly involved in deciding how to invest and share the funds.
“I didn’t understand it at first,” Drake says, “but when I learned that it would allow our family to help other people that are less fortunate, then I thought it was cool. There were a bunch of brochures in a folder they gave me with all of these organizations, but I didn’t understand what that really meant.”
To help him make the connection, the Coleman’s took Drake and Sam to the St Mark’s baby room as an example of how giving to an organization could impact actual people and families.
Still, Drake said he felt compelled to be directly involved in helping a family in need.
“This is just his personality,” Cathie said. “He really wanted it to go to a family, not an organization.”
So, a call to their church pastor uncovered a need – a family with seven children who was in need of a water heater.
“We were told that they were taking showers with water that they boiled on the stove and it was freezing outside,” Drake said. “I had met one of the little girls before because she was in my Sunday school class. I thought it was great that we could help them directly with a gift and we could see the impact.”
The Colemans made their first gift from the fund to the church, and the church then bought the water heater for the family – a refugee family, and one of the first families placed in Abilene through the International Rescue Committee.
“When we came to see them, they were so grateful, and they were all cooking together in the kitchen,” Drake said. “They welcomed us in and made us feel at home and even gave us eggs to take home in exchange. It felt good to help them.”
Later that year, Drake was looking for a community service project for National Honor Society. As he brainstormed ideas, the experience with the refugee family weighed on his mind and he knew he wanted to work through the IRC. Drake played tennis and had the idea to start an after school program to teach tennis to some of the children of refugee families. After writing a business plan, with help from his parents, to be submitted to the U.S. Tennis Association, the program First Serve – now in its fourth season – was off the ground.
“We started with 10-15 kids and have about 40 now,” Cathie said. “USTA helped set us up as a National Junior Tennis League through the Arthur Ashe chapter and provided a curriculum of life skills that go along with the tennis. Tennis is a sport where it’s really easy to integrate life skills. It’s a great fit.”
Equipment was provided through the NJTL chapter, and Drake also raised $3,000 through sponsors and fundraising. But starting such a unique program wasn’t without its challenges.
“The main challenge in getting First Serve off the ground was communication – given the language and cultural differences,” Drake said. “The original families at First Serve were from Bhurma and spoke Nepali. We had a translator interpret the original sign-up sheet and then literally went to the apartments and set up pop-up tennis nets so they could see what we were talking about. The kids came out to play but the next challenge was transportation to the courts at Rose Park. Volunteers at the IRC from Southern Hills Church of Christ offered to drive their van to the apartments and pick them up, and that made the whole thing work. We went from 5 kids to 40 kids every week.”
It wasn’t long before other people began to take notice of this program started by a middle schooler in Abilene. In 2013, the chapter was named USTA chapter of the year for the state of Texas, and Drake was named a Chevy Hometown Hero and interviewed on Fox Sports Southwest and the Disney Channel.
“It has really opened by eyes to the diversity that lies within Abilene, and has taught me how to love everyone, no matter who they are,” Drake says. “It has instilled within me a heart for service, and has changed my life.”
This year, the growing program is undergoing transition. Drake began attending a boarding school in North Carolina this fall, and the Abilene High School tennis team is taking the First Serve program under its wings. Cathie will continue to help with curriculum, and AHS tennis students will teach the 40 7- through 12-year-old refugee children in a spring and fall 8-week program that takes place at Rose Park.
Drake’s brother Sam, now 9, is a tennis player and beginning to be involved in the program as well.
“It’s a way for Sam to see giving back as well,” Cathie said. “It’s really cool for it to be at AHS now because it can be passed down each year. We’ve had a great response from the IRC. It’s been a really good fit. I’m excited for Sam to get even more involved as he gets older.”
Cathie said this outreach, although spurred by their Christmas gift of giving to others, was an outgrowth of Drake’s innate generosity.
“Drake is a real big-hearted kid anyway. He’s always been that way,” Cathie says. “The driving thing was that he really cares about helping other people.”