- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2000

Nearly 200 children let out a disappointed cry each time their raffle tickets did not win one of the four pink-and-purple bicycles on the stage at St. Luke's Catholic Church activity center in Southeast yesterday. Each wanted a gift badly.

But they squealed with delight minutes later when Santa Claus distributed gifts from Toys for Tots. And all the children were left smiling, clutching Barbie dolls, books, stuffed animals and board games.

If not for community groups and the Metropolitan Police Department, many of the elementary school children who crowded the activity center next to St. Luke's on East Capitol Street in Southeast yesterday would not have received any gifts at all this holiday season.

While Americans are spending an average of $1,161 on gifts this year, according to American Express, the parents of at least one-third of the children at yesterday's party can't even think about holiday shopping because they live off as little as $400 a month and food stamps.

"Christmas is a stressful time for them," says Mary D. Jackson, chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 7-E, the large region east of the Anacostia River in the District. "A lot of them cannot get Christmas gifts."

Mrs. Jackson is one of several community leaders who helped bring the students to St. Luke's for an annual Christmas party yesterday. The 5- through 12-year-olds were picked up at their schools and delivered to St. Luke's by three buses, compliments of Metro.

The day began with a puppet show, with the children seated on the ground between two groups of tables under the basketball hoops.

Laughing and poking each other, the children then moved up to the tables, where a mixture of community group volunteers, police officers from District 6 and school crossing guards dressed as elves served hot dogs, hamburgers, baked beans, fried chicken and potato salad.

"This is how families of low income celebrate the holidays," said Linda Jo Smith, chairman of the Citizens Advisory Council 6-D, who has helped organize the event and has done so for nearly a decade.

Principals and guidance counselors from the 22 elementary schools east of the Anacostia River were contacted ahead of time and asked to choose 15 to 20 students who they knew would not be getting gifts this year.

"They elect the needy children," Ms. Smith said. "They usually send kids from families with quite a few siblings or kids where the counselors see don't get toys."

The parents of the low-income children in Southeast are just a fraction of the 32.3 million Americans who were living in poverty last year, according the World Almanac. Nearly 12 percent of the population earned an average of $17,029 in 1999.

With that kind of money, it's hard to buy $10 stuffed animals or police car toys, let alone this year's favorite presents Poo-Chi robotic dogs or Razor scooters each priced at nearly $100.

Low-income families are not capitalizing on the nine-year economic expansion, even while the nation's unemployment rate is at a 30-year low of 4 percent, Mrs. Jackson said.

"Folks want you to believe they have [means], but they have fallen through the cracks," she said. For many of the poor in Southeast, "the demand hasn't been met. You find a lot of folks who are in need of food, jobs."

After the tasty lunch, four of the children won bicycles compliments of the police's District 6. Each winner smiled and held on to the safety gear that went with the bike, as an adult drove it to the lucky child.

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