The line of humanity ascended the steps to the pavilion at Columbia’s Finlay Park on Christmas morning. At the top, a local brand of angel awaited, each with a bag or a wrapped box of gifts.
Their instructions were simple: each was to take a bag, approach the next person in the line, greet them, give them a gift with the season’s greetings and know the joy.
Actually, that part about joy wasn’t part of the instructions, because it didn’t need to be. Several families in the area wake up each Christmas morning and before exchanging the Yuletide joy in their own homes, pack up the car with pre-packaged gifts, load up the kids and head down to Finlay Park.
As much as anything else, perhaps, Finlay Park, the unperturbed, 18-acre green space in downtown Columbia has come to be associated with the homeless, some of whom sleep in the park at night under the pavilion.
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Local angels have come to the park on Christmas morning for at least five years.
“This is something the Lord put on my heart to do five years ago,” said Danny Wagner, a horse trainer in Blythewood. “I prayed to him ’cause I was really losing Christmas.” That first year, Wagner said he simply drove around town handing out gifts, and the second year, he was led to Finlay Park.
“The Lord’s grown it,” Wagner said. “It’s unbelievable the people that come out and just want to be a part of it.”
Susan Lawler, 53, of Charleston, said she slept on the pavilion stage floor the night before Christmas, because she had no place else to go. Lawler, who said she was awakened by the local angels bringing out their boxes and bags of gifts, was at the head of the line.
“These nice people woke us up and told us they were giving us gifts and hot chocolate,” Lawler said. Homeless for 10 years and drug-free for three years, Lawler said she is unable to find a job.
Fifty-three-year-old Virginia Hall stood in the line, too, and soon received several bags of gifts. “You got people out here who want to make something of themselves, but they don’t ever get the chance to,” Hall said.
John Holmes, a 59-year-old homeless veteran, said he was in the Post Office nearby charging his cell phone, then noticed the commotion in the park as he walked past. “I didn’t know this was going on,” he said. Holmes got a bag stuffed with various items and received prayer from the gift-givers.
Toni Fairfax of Blythewood, and her daughter, Olivia Robitzsch, gave packages to several of the needy as they came up on the stage, then asked if she could pray with them. “It’s our first time doing this as a family,” said Fairfax, who attends Blythewood Presbyterian Church. Some of the people who have come to Finlay Park the past couple of years are members at Blythewood, she said.
“So, we heard about it and definitely wanted to bring our kids and start this as a tradition,” Fairfax said. They sought donations and purchased goods for the give-a-way, Fairfax said, rustling up socks, gloves, hats, toothpaste, kid’s toys and McDonald’s gift cards.
“It makes me feel like we can actually change something in this community and make people’s days just by giving them simple things they can’t afford on a daily basis,” said Robitzsch. “This is how I would like to spend my Christmas every year.”
Giving out gifts at Finlay Park is a great start to Christmas Day, Fairfax said, and puts into proper perspective all the things she and her family are so used to – and blessed with.
Car after car pulled into the park until past noon, each following a similar pattern: a father and mother opens the car doors and haul out the kids, who are swarmed by the crowds as they hand out gifts to perfect strangers, peppering their gestures of kindness with wishes of “Merry Christmas.”
Mark Cecchini of Columbia, his wife and four small kids backed up their mini-van to the pavilion after the initial crowd had dissipated. “Well, we have extra this Christmas,” said Cecchini. “We feel good about what we have gotten and wanted to give back a little. We hope there is an opportunity to give out some shoe boxes,” filled with all sorts of needed toiletries – soap, shampoos, conditioners, razors and so forth, he said.
Audrey Crawford first came to the gifting with her husband and two kids three years ago, she said, to give the youngsters a different perspective – before they open their gifts at home. Each Christmas now, they roll out of bed and come to Finlay Park.
“It really touched all of us, and quite a bit, to see there are a lot of people out there that just don’t have anything,” Crawford said, “and that could be us – any of us. It made us appreciate more, what we do have.”
Crawford said what pleased her the most was the second year when she asked her kids, who are now 20 and 14 years old, if they wanted to do the gift give-a-way again. Their response? “Well, of course. And then this year it wasn’t even a question. It was just, this is what we do.”
Wagner, meanwhile, got back the joy he once had lost.
“I have gotten Christmas back like I never had it, brother,” Wagner said. “Every year just gets a little bit better. And that’s what I originally prayed for – I wanted to feel His Holy Spirit on this special day.