Yesterday's post was all about excessivism, perceived privilege and the all that is wrong in the world. Today's post is a reminder that there is (a lot) of good out there and a reminder about the importance of each and everyone of us counting our blessings and being grateful for what we have and can share with others. For me, this is the real meaning of the holiday season.
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to accompany some of our Marines stationed here in Tirana on their annual delivery of gifts that had been collected through their Toys for Tots charity drive. (Regular readers of my blog will know that I absolutely love this program). This year's recipient organization was a group home and day drop in center for disabled children and young adults located in northern Albania. Even in the United States, disabled or differently abled, individuals tend to be marginalized by mainstream society but this appears to be an even larger problem here in Albania. In my experience, Albania and Albanians are all about striving to fit in and to conform with the perceived "norm" so anything or anyone that looks different, acts different, or speaks different is usually shunned, or even worse, initially approached with uncomfortable and inappropriate curiosity before being cast aside. Additionally, Albania is a difficult country for even the most mobile of people to maneuver through so I can only imagine how virtually impossible it would be for someone with a physical handicap to get around. Perhaps this is why I rarely see people in wheelchairs or walkers. Unfortunately, however, I believe that a more likely reason is that disabled people get shuttered away and out of sight. After all, it happens in the western world so why wouldn't it happen here? I've asked numerous Albanians on repeated occasions about the care and services that are available to Albania's disabled population. The responses I've received have ranged from people not knowing anyone who is disabled, to it not being a problem (really?) or it just being too upsetting to think or talk about so they choose not to. For me, this speaks to the crux of the problem. If out of sight is out of mind, then anything deemed to be different is all too easy to ignore.
And all of this is why our trip earlier this week was so special. This home had close to 100 clients with a wide range of diagnosis ranging from physical to psychological utilizing their services. Approximately half were day clients while the others resided there on a full time basis. While the center was clean with (what appeared to be) freshly painted walls and was obviously decorated for the visiting Americans, there was a noticeable lack of heat in the building. Heating units were attached to many of the walls but they obviously were not working and didn't appear like they had for some time. Unfortunately this isn't uncommon in Albania but with it being December in northern Albania, it was colder inside the concrete building than out. Some of the activity rooms were heated with small electric heaters (that appeared suspiciously new) but the rest of the building was cold. Staff and residents alike were bundled up in multiple layers of clothing which included scarves and winter coats. The staff were cheerful and appeared to be engaged with the few residents we saw, but the overall atmosphere simply made me sad. As I stood there and observed what was going on around me, I realized just how lucky I am. Not only do I have my health but I have the resources to take care of myself and my family both on a daily basis but also should a crisis arise. I have ready access to the heat, food, medicine and other necessities that I require. Clearly not everyone is this fortunate.
But just when I was beginning to feel really blue a wonderful thing happened. Our Santa Claus arrived and started to distribute individually wrapped gifts*** to each of the residents. Many of the gifts were actually quite simple--puzzles, stuffed animals, hat, scarf, and mitten sets-- but each was received with broad smiles, open arms and so much appreciation that it brought tears to my eyes. The pure joy expressed on the faces of these children and young adults reminded me that the simplest of gestures can go a long way. Forget the high priced I-Pads and X-Boxes that so many American children will find under their trees this year; for these Albanian children the small gifts they received courtesy of Toys for Tots are just as, if not more, appreciated than the fancy electronics gifted to more affluent children. The sight of a young man trying on his first sport coat was unbelievably moving as was the simple hand held bell that caused a girl to get up and dance. It was in that moment that I was reminded what the holidays are all about and I just wish more people would stop, step back, and remember this. While Christmas has turned into a commercialized nightmare for too many people, a simple gift and a bit of love is all some people ask for. For me, Christmas is about caring and giving of oneself to both your loved ones and those who are less fortunate than yourself. And again, I am reminded about exactly how lucky I am.
***Through the generosity of the staff and families at the Embassy, we were also able to donate over 600 pieces of warm clothing, blankets, and linens as well as personal hygiene items to the residents of the center.