Thursday, December 17, 2009

Living Out The Real Meaning Of Christmas

Some say you pick your friends but are stuck with your relatives.  I am so proud to count Ken and Evie and their family as relatives that I would gladly choose as friends.

Thirty-four years ago, in the Christmas of the year they had their first child, Ken and Evie Hauser had the idea to leave their home in the suburbs and go downtown for the weekend. They would have dinner, spend the night in a hotel and, while they were there, hand out a few things to the needy.

For Ken, the visit downtown harkened to his past. When he was a boy, his father would take him to the Downtown Eastside every Wednesday night to the Gospel Mission, where they would help out. Ken's charitable impulse had been bred into him early.

"So we bundled up the baby that first year," Ken said, "and took the bus downtown. It was so long ago, I can't even remember what we gave out."

The years passed. The Hauser family grew. There was a second child, and a third child and a fourth.

And as the family grew, so did the annual Christmas trip. Each child meant another conscript for the weekend outing, and each was incorporated into it in his or her turn. And as Ken's father had taught him the worth of giving, so he and Evie taught their children. They took to the streets as a family, and the things they carried with them and gave away grew as they did.

"We'd make up some sandwiches and take those down," Ken said, "and we'd hand out things like gloves and socks and good warm coats. Most of the clothing was our own used clothing, but they were never throwaways. We always made sure that it was clothing that was in good shape and that we could still wear it."

There were lean years. Ken worked in a construction firm, and in the recession of the early 1980s, his firm declared bankruptcy.

"We knew charity then ourselves," Ken said. "There would be the knock on the door at night, and the boxes of food left on the front porch, because we would have trouble feeding our own kids.

"But I had a wife who loved and supported me, and my children, and my faith, and even though we were going through bankruptcy I found out that money is not all that it is supposed to be. Yes, you need it and yes, it puts food on the table. But we found out that our wealth was in other things."

The Hausers kept up the annual Christmas trip downtown even then. His kids especially enjoyed it, he said, and looked forward to it.

"There was this older couple I remember, and they would dress up as Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, and they had a dog named Radar. They were needy, I suppose, but the kids loved them, and while other kids would be in the department stores waiting to sit on Santa's knee, our kids would be looking forward to seeing this couple out on the street."

As the years passed, Ken and Evie's kids grew up and got married, and they had kids of their own. Now, Ken and Evie have six grandchildren, and they, too, have joined the annual Christmas trip downtown.

Of all of this -- the annual trip, the charitable acts, the kids' and grandkids' involvement -- I learned none of it from Ken. He appears to be the kind of man who curdles at self-aggrandizement and whose personal code of conduct dictates that charitable acts are done and not seen.

But those charitable acts were seen by a friend of the Hausers last weekend, when the family did their annual trip. In an e-mail to me, the friend wrote:

"Last Saturday my husband and I were having breakfast (downtown) when all of a sudden we spied the whole Hauser family laden down with bags full of goodies, bundled up with grandkids in tow heading down the street to find the homeless. The smiles and energy radiating from them was noticeable from far away."

She suggested I talk to this "remarkable family" and do a story on them, but when I phoned Ken, he was reluctant to talk.

"It's not a huge thing," he said, of the annual trip, "and we don't like to think of it as a huge thing. It's just something we like to do as a family."

But his grandkids had come to love it, too, he said, and they were learning, as his own children had, the charitable impulse that he had learned as a boy. They looked forward to the weekend all year, he said, and the older grandkids had started volunteering in the soup kitchens at their churches.

"I think we try to teach them that Christmas is more than just about getting gifts; it's about giving, too. But listen," he said, "if you're going to write this, I don't want this to be about us. If somebody through this can be inspired to go down and help out, that'll be enough."

This last weekend went well, he said. He and the family spent some of Friday night on the streets, and all of Saturday, and some of Sunday morning. Almost always, he said, the people he meets and talks to are appreciative. This year, they gave out things like Tim Horton's gift cards, and bags of chips, and mandarin oranges, and clothes. In the tougher areas of the Downtown Eastside, like dark alleyways, only he and his boys would venture down them, but even there, he said, they never ran into trouble. He had given out shoes to men who were barefoot, and socks to a man wearing nothing but plastic bags on his feet and gloves to men whose hands were raw with cold.

"And there was this young girl last year who really affected me. She was sitting on the sidewalk in the cold, and I asked her if she was okay, and if she had a home to go to, and she said, 'I can't go home.' And I asked her why, and she said because her father abused her."

At this point in our conversation, Ken started to cry as he told this, and he excused himself.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but as a father, it just tears me apart."

This year, he said, he and Evie had talked about not doing the trip, because the recession had been tough on the construction business. And treating the whole family to dinner out and putting them up for a weekend at the Wall Centre was a big bill -- although the hotel, in its own act of kindness, had been discounting their rooms since they found out why the Hausers were staying downtown. ( "I think we must be the only guests that arrive at the Wall Centre with plastic garbage bags filled with stuff," Ken said.)

But they decided to bite the bullet, Ken said, because money spent on the family and on helping those who needed it was money better spent than on any financial investment.

I asked him what it cost him to do it all, and he told me, and I said that he must be fairly well off.

"I am," he said, and then he said he was talking about the riches his family and faith brought him, not his bank account.

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