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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, December 24, 2004

Gifts show someone cares

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — Magin Patrick is one stubborn elf.

Brandy Wong, left, and Rumila Poll show their appreciation to Magin Patrick during a Christmas Wish party held in Hilo. Patrick's inspiration for the Christmas Wish program was her upbringing as an abused and neglected child in a fractured family.

Tim Wright photo

On Christmas Eve 2002, she first arrived at Pu'u Maile, a homeless camp stretched out along both sides of a rutted dirt road in Keaukaha outside of Hilo.

People told her not to go. They told her it might be dangerous and warned her she would not be welcome.

Patrick went anyway, dressed in a bright red elf suit with green trim, riding in the back of a slow-moving van with the rear hatch up. She had a load of presents for the two dozen children who lived in the camp, and from her perch in the van she called out to the families staring out from under the tarpaulins and inside the scrap-lumber shacks.

At first, no one came out, Patrick recalled. The children hid in the bushes, watching. When she continued to call out for the keiki, several large and angry men emerged from the tents and shacks.

They told her to get lost, right now. They asked her if she was crazy.

Wouldn't give up

Tyler Taylor, 11, is all smiles after finding a toy helicopter in his gift bag during the Christmas Wish party held in Hilo. This year, Christmas Wish was expected to distribute gifts to almost 600 youngsters.

Tim Wright photo

Magin Patrick, the Christmas elf, refused to leave. She called out, "Are there any keiki here? We have presents from Santa."

When the van reached the end of the dirt track, Patrick, husband, Kevin, and two helpers got out and looked around. It was then that the first child, a small boy about 10 years old, approached, took a present, and disappeared back into the bushes.

Minutes passed and more children approached. As the camp families realized Patrick really was passing out gifts, mothers came forward with the younger and more shy children.

Patrick, 35, said she suspects some families were initially hostile because they believed she might be with Child Welfare Services. She explained to the camp residents she was with a program called Christmas Wish, and was there only to make sure the children had some Christmas cheer.

Find out more

For details, visit the Web site www.ChristmasWishProgram.org or call Magin Patrick at (808) 982-8128. Tax-deductible donations may be sent to P.O. Box 1844, Kea'au, HI 96749.

"Some of the moms came out and said, 'Thank you. Nobody cares about us,' " Patrick recalled.

That Christmas encounter was just the beginning of the relationship between Patrick and the Big Island's homeless residents.

Patrick distributes Christmas toys and collects food for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, but also provides school supplies and other necessities for the needy families, including roofing and other building materials to help patch up the make-shift camp structures.

This year, Christmas Wish was expected to distribute gifts to almost 600 youngsters.

The inspiration for the program was Patrick's upbringing as an abused and neglected child, one of four children in a fractured family that moved around the country. Patrick remembers Christmas Day when she was 10, when she asked her mother why Santa hadn't come.

Her mother snapped back that Santa doesn't come for bad little girls. Patrick said she knows her mother was trying to cope because they didn't have the means to buy presents, but as a 10-year-old girl, she was devastated.

Patrick said she doesn't know what other poor families tell their children when Santa is a no-show, but she knows from experience what children think: It's because of something they did.

It's all from Santa

When Patrick was 17 and living in Martinez, Calif., she began volunteering at a shelter for abandoned teens, bringing pumpkins to carve on Halloween or putting on a Christmas party.

Those efforts expanded over the years into her Christmas Wish program, which Patrick said distributed 10,000 toys to Bay Area children in the year before she moved with her family to Hawai'i in 2002. Once here, the program was incorporated as an official nonprofit entity.

Patrick has four children, and routinely drafts them to help with Christmas Wish activities. She draws no salary and ran the operation last year with $14,800 in cash donations and about $37,000 worth of gifts.

"I pretty much do it all by myself and hope other people come through" as volunteers and donors, said Patrick, who is a familiar sight at Christmastime outside malls and grocery stores where she hands out gift tags with a child's name on it and his or her toy wish.

Every gift from the Christmas Wish program is from Santa alone, she said. "I make sure they know that Santa loves them and cares for them."

The situation at Pu'u Maile has become increasingly grim in the past two years, but Patrick said she respects the families trying to make do there. She's even appeared in Family Court to vouch for some of them.

"They really, really care about their kids, and I just know that other than being homeless, they haven't done anything to have those kids taken away," she said.

Norlyn Santiago, 35, was living in Pu'u Maile with her son and four daughters when Patrick arrived on Christmas Eve 2002. She remembers those first gifts Patrick handed out at the camp — Legos and Girl Scout Barbie dolls — and said her daughters still have the dolls.

"My kids were sad, we were all sad. It was a really hard time for me. Somebody stole all my money, so I had no money for any Christmas presents at all," Santiago said, her voice cracking at the memory. "When they came and they gave my kids those gifts, it touched my heart."

"It's the best thing that anybody could have done for my kids."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.