Real Christmas Lights

11/16/2011 11:32 am ET | Updated Jan 16, 2012

Many of us have beautiful memories of Christmas as children... memories of magic and wonder, the thrill of knowing Santa Claus would soon be here, rushing off to bed so that we could pretend to be asleep (as if we could fool him into coming earlier).

Not only did we spend months perfecting our Christmas wish list, but we also worked very hard to find just the right presents for our parents, grandparents, and siblings. You probably have a rather vivid memory of how heroic and special you felt when your mom opened that spice rack, or your dad unwrapped that fantastic dresser caddy that had a place for all the contents of his pockets. And what a thrill to "out-gift" your siblings! Giving was almost as wondrous as getting! Christmas. Even the word has a sparkle to it.

Kids who have survived domestic violence or sexual abuse are older than other kids their age. Their whole world is upside down, and instead of being the happiest time of the year, Christmas tends to be just the opposite. Its a reminder of how different they are, a time when they feel the most isolated and powerless.

I got a good look at this phenomenon when I volunteered at the first annual Duffy House Santa's Super Secret Workshop last year. The event was designed to allow these kids to get special tickets from Santa's helpers that they could use like cash in a big "workshop" with long tables filled with gift items sorted by recipients (gifts for moms, dads, teachers, brothers, sisters, etc.).

There were no adults allowed in the workshop, only Santa's helpers and the small shoppers. There was even a station where kids could have their treasures gift wrapped. It was a great idea, and what made it an even better idea was the fact that "regular" kids were welcome to shop as well, only they had to pay real money for gift tickets. All the tickets looked the same, and nobody except Santa's helpers knew which kids were which, and I was so impressed by that, because the last thing these kids needed was to feel embarrassed or even more different.

The survivors arrived quietly, almost stoic, like veterans of a secret war that nobody knew was raging. They dutifully took their tickets, and grasping their carefully prepared shopping lists, were escorted into the workshop by helpful elves. Once those big double doors closed behind them, everything changed. Their eyes lit up, they got a noticeable spring in their steps, and a palpable glow swept over them that one could not look upon without grinning like a fool.

I stood there in my elf ears and jingle bell hat and felt myself swelling up with a sensation I couldn't immediately identify, and as I got that weird Hallmark commercial tear in my eye, I realized what it was that had touched me so deeply. I was watching children's hearts filling with hope, many for the first time. They emerged from their shopping expeditions full of pride and anxious to spend a moment with Santa Claus and tell him all about the great stuff they had found for everyone, and to quickly mention things they might like to receive for themselves on the big day.

These kids who had so much taken away from them, who had learned some pretty impressive coping mechanisms, who had been through more in their short lives than many of us had endured in our lifetimes, were absolutely busting at the seams with sheer, unadulterated joy at the prospect of being able to give presents to their families. It was inspiring to watch, and it was a terrific reminder to me of what Christmas is supposed to be about.

The second annual Duffy House Santa's Super Secret Workshop is fast approaching, and you can bet I'll be there again, with bells on (literally). Having the opportunity to see these kids light up and sparkle from the inside out is the best present I could possibly give myself.

The Workshop shelves need stocking, and so we are collecting donations of various items as well as funds with which to send some elves shopping for workshop inventory by December 1st. If you don't have elf ears or a jingle bell hat, but would like to help, please click here to find out more.