Regina Brooks' compassionate tears. Vanessa Condry's joyous laughter. Ari Moore's shy smile.
These - from a Women's Center worker, a Wheels4Hope recipient and a Community Music School student - are some of the many gifts I received through our Holiday Guide to Giving challenge this year.
Every one of your more than 140 email messages detailing a donation to a local charity was a gift to our community - from the $9,800 a family foundation spread among 15 nonprofit groups to the $10 that 11-year-old Ross Bechtel saved from his allowance and sent to the Food Bank.
Your donations far surpass our $25,000 goal. The $57,777 raised was a gift to humanity - a restorative elixir to what these days can sometimes seem a soul-sucking wasteland of strife and pain.
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Thank you. The Women's Center was overwhelmed with response. Eleven more people are getting reliable cars through Wheels4Hope. The Community Music School will stay open. Thank you.
At least 35 emails specifically mentioned the challenge prize: forcing columnist Barry Saunders to wear a Santa suit from noon to 1:30 today at The N&O. A sampling: "I hope it's a NCSU bright red santa suit." "Please add the following amounts to your campaign and stuff Barry into that Santa suit." "I hope there will be a full body shot printed in the N&O and on the website."
Getting to see Barry in all his Santa glory was "the icing on the cake" for Jim and Tracy Stephenson, who donated their 1995 Mazda to Wheels4Hope. "We wanted the car to go to someone who could really benefit from it," Tracy Stephenson said.
Marvin Woll, a Raleigh retiree, made donations to several charities and also loaned us his Santa suit for Barry to wear. Woll recently wore the suit to give out candy canes at the Women's Center holiday party, a destination he chose because of the holiday challenge.
"Although I was an elementary and middle school counselor for 25 years, all spent in inner city schools, it still gets to me to see the rough lives that those ladies live," he said. "One lady said, 'I wish I had a home,' and that got to me some."
Those who gave
Russ Catania of Apex spread his donations among 16 charities. "I really wish God would let me win the lottery so I could give a lot more and help a lot more people," he said, confirming that he does indeed play. "There's just so many charities you look at and know are really good and you hate to say no."
One of my favorite messages was this: "I'm Carolyn Meadows, here in beautiful downtown Beaufort, and I mailed $100 to the Community Music School." Why would she help Wake County's economically disadvantaged children, who get $1 lessons from the school, from that far away?
"I've been a musician my whole life; it's part of my breathing," she said. "I have seen what music can do for children, especially the disadvantaged."
From kids, for kids
Spencer Mangum, 13, asked his friends and family members to donate what they would have spent on him for Christmas so he could buy toys for the Salvation Army instead. He raised $486 and then spent Monday volunteering at the nonprofit's distribution center.
"My job is to take the toys to the cars," Spencer said while at the center. "Some people, they're very happy. It makes me feel good that their children will be happy on Christmas."
Melissa Penwell's 12-year-old twins, Alexa and Taylor, set aside some of their $6 weekly allowance for charity and get to decide how to use it. This year, they spent about $45 each filling stockings for the Salvation Army's Angel Tree ministry.
Part of our $57,777 total was the value of a very special piano, one that Susan Gilbert's father bought for her when she was in the ninth grade.
Gilbert, who directs the band and choir at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Cary, parked the piano at the Apex home of her sister, Anne Brock, when she got a baby grand. The sisters saw the Dec. 14 Holiday Guide to Giving column that featured Ari and Caleb Moore, students at the Community Music School, and decided it was time that somebody else's talented hands enjoyed the pleasure of the piano.
They got in touch with the school, which was on the verge of closing after 16 years, and said they wanted to give the upright Baldwin to Ari, a 13-year-old musician who had a keyboard but no piano.
"It does my heart good that someone who has been gifted with musical talent can use it," Gilbert said. "I read the article in The N&O, and I just knew that this boy needed a piano so that he could have the same opportunity that I had."
The piano now sits in the North Raleigh home that Ari and Caleb share with their grandparents, Inez and Ronald Brewington, and parents, Robert and LaShanda Brewington Moore. I was privileged to see their faces when the piano arrived and to hear Ari play it for the first time. Another gift.
Ari's amazing rendition of "Sweet Home Alabama" was a special request from self-described redneck Mike Zlotnicki, The N&O's former Outdoors editor, who donated his time and truck to get the piano to the boys. After the performance, Zlotnicki wiped his eyes, though there was some half-hearted attempt to blame it on the dust from recent home-repair work.
Your gifts to the community, to humanity, have changed lives this holiday season. But as Brooks from the Women's Center cautioned, let us be mindful that our community's great needs do not end Dec. 26.
"No one seems to remember," she said. "What about January, and April, and June when it's hot outside? No one calls to say, 'Do you all need water? Do you need sandwiches?' "
May your wonderful generosity last the whole year through.