A Gift That Gives Back

Article by Diane A. Smith, published in the Star-Telegram, Dec 24th 2017

Esmeralda Martinez and her family were losing the revenue versus expenses game.

It was late 2011 and Martinez and her now ex-husband worked at a seafood restaurant in north Fort Worth and their paychecks disappeared as fast as they came.

The previous year they had moved from an extended-stay hotel to a modest home in a working-class neighborhood in Haltom City. But they struggled to pay the $800-a-month rent on the two-bedroom house, and they worried they would be forced to return to a hotel.

“We worked all the time,” said Martinez. “We were determined not to lose our new home.”

Then one December day at work, Martinez met her Christmas angel.

A nice man, 60 years old or so, was seated in her section and engaged Martinez in conversation. She was hurried, also tending to a table of 20, but took time to listen. He was an oil man, driving through North Texas on his way to Houston. She noticed that he had a club fist.

He ordered crab, Martinez recalled, and as they chatted she told him about her children — 6-year-old Halie, 4-year-old William and 1-year-old Weslie.

Martinez remembers mentioning that her family had moved out of a hotel, though she didn’t dwell on it.

“You don’t have a real address. It isn’t a real home,” Martinez said.

He asked how her family was doing for Christmas and she politely replied: “We are doing fine.”

The man finished his meal and paid up, leaving a $10 tip on a $50 tab.

It was a nice tip, but nothing out of the ordinary.

He left and she went about her business, then noticed him quietly approaching.

The man slipped her some cash.

“I just want your family to have a Merry Christmas,” he told Martinez.

Touched by his kindness, she retreated to the kitchen, where she counted out $800.

Then she burst into tears.

“It was a lot of money for our family,” she said. “We never had that much money at one time.”

‘A random act of kindness’

The stranger didn’t leave a name and by the time Martinez realized how much money he had given her, he was gone.

“He was a random act of kindness that started a big ripple,” Martinez said.

With the cash, Martinez and her family were able to pay the rent for the house at 5117 Vicki St. in Haltom City.

But the gift also inspired the family to give to others. Martinez said they remembered how happy they’d felt when someone had brought stockings filled with goodies for children to the hotel. So the family used leftover dollars to bring more Christmas presents to other children who lived at the hotel.

“We prayed over the presents in the parking lot,” said Martinez, recalling that moment as they stood outside the hotel, before taking the presents to the manager.

Martinez and her husband are divorced now, but the Christmas tradition that started in 2011 continues. Martinez now oversees a grassroots program called Giving Christmas, and the family partners with Haltom City and the Birdville school district to get presents into the hands of children.

Martinez’s boyfriend, J.T. Thomas, and her co-workers at Nordstorm help with the project.

“This is something in which God tells you: ‘This is where you need to be,’ ” said Thomas, adding that last year they gave away 153 presents and this year they increased to 400. Thomas and Martinez hope to turn their efforts into a nonprofit soon.

Julie Orebaugh, community projects coordinator for Haltom City, said Giving Christmas is one of several holiday outreach efforts in the city of 44,000. In January 2016, the City Council issued a proclamation in support of Giving Christmas.

“It is such a selfless thing that they take on,” Orebaugh said.

‘It’s an awesome story’

Martinez and her children now live in north Fort Worth. They collect toys year-round. By December, their house is filled with dolls, building blocks, footballs and jump ropes — presents for children at Birdville schools with a large percentage of students on free and reduced-price lunch programs.

Volunteers came over for pizza and a “wrapping party” in which hundreds of presents were prepared.

“Who doesn’t like unwrapping a present?” Martinez said.

This year, Giving Christmas parties were held on Dec. 13 at West Birdville Academy and David E. Smith Elementary.

“This is how we do Christmas,” Martinez said.

She said they focus on Birdville schools because they have ties to the district. She attended David E. Smith Elementary, as did her oldest two children. In fact, the house on Vicki Street is just blocks away.

“It’s an awesome story,” said Jennifer Martin, principal.

Martin said the Martinez children — now 12, 10 and 7 — are role models for other students.

“We get to tell the great story to our students — that you don’t have to be an adult or grown up to give back,” Martin said. “They can give back. They don’t have a lot of money to give back and make a difference.”

At this year’s David E. Smith party, children and teachers dressed in pajamas (it was also pajamas day) with Christmas motifs, Pokemon, ninjas and superheroes. The sound of young children talking, giggling and squealing filled the cafeteria. Minutes later, the hum of happy children was replaced with everyone joining in “Jingle Bells.”

After students made a Christmas tree craft and ate pizza, they were handed two presents.

Bella Medrano, 6-year-old first-grade student, said the party was “awesome.”

“It’s the best day of my life,” she said.

Eight-year-old Lakeynn Kidd pondered the meaning of Christmas.

“It’s not about ourselves,” Kidd said. “It’s about other people. Giving.”

Tim Drysdale, principal at West Birdville Academy, said many of his students come from challenging home situations, including hunger, poverty and child abuse. He said the gifts from Martinez’s family are sometimes the only gifts some of his students will receive for Christmas.

Halie said the parties are a lot of work, but worth it.

“It is nice to see all the kids smile,” she said.

The Giving Christmas party has been held at West Birdville Academy for three years, Drysdale said.

“From that act of generosity, they are just paying it forward,” Drysdale said.

‘I don’t know his name’

Today, Martinez is more financially stable. She is sales manager at Nordstrom, where she works with Thomas. The couple recently bought a house in north Fort Worth near Keller.

But she hasn’t forgotten her family’s struggles — when they lived in a 575-square-foot, two-bedroom extended-stay hotel in Haltom City. Martinez’s youngest, Weslie, was a baby and slept in bassinet next to her bed. Other families with children lived there too, but it was not a family-friendly environment, Martinez said.

“For the most part, we kept our kids inside,” Martinez said. “You don’t really know who you are living next to.”

She tried to make the time there as pleasant as she could. She used to place a canvas on the sidewalk near their room so the children could paint. She would drape a blanket over a table so Halie and William could pretend they were in a cave. Sometimes, baby Weslie would go in the cave too, Martinez said with a laugh.

“I don’t think they realize they were in a hotel,” Martinez said. “They just thought it was home.”

Martinez shrugged when asked how she and her children gained their giving spirit. She said when people need help, you help.

“I think it is just something we are supposed to do,” she said.

Martinez and her children often stop when they see a stranger in need. They have fed homeless people along Fort Worth’s Lancaster Avenue and brought them blankets.

This time of year especially, Martinez and her children still wonder about the stranger — their Christmas angel — who helped turn their lives around.

“I don’t know his name,” she said. “I don’t know anything about him. Just that he was going back to Houston. … I wish I would have caught his name so I could thank him.”