I am a Hudson Valley Parent: Melissa Banks

Making every day like Christmas

Making every day like Christmas

Melissa Banks says she got the idea for Christmas Wishes, the nonprofit she runs that brings presents and special cheer to Ulster County kids and their families, when her son was three and his father announced that he had decided to move to Korea with his new love.

"We were in a lease-to-buy home that I had to give up, then pay all I had by December 23," Banks remembers. "My parents suggested that my son Keegan and I should just move in with them, and then they did a full Christmas for my three-year-old. I couldn't even afford a stocking stuffer."

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Turning hardships into holiday cheer

Banks waitressed to try and make enough money to get herself back on her feet and she started nursing school. Six years later, in 2014, she found herself in a more comfortable place that allowed her to give back to the community where she had grown up. "I put a post on Facebook, seeking those who might not have the support system I did. I wanted to 'pay it forward' to some local families and I wanted to show my son how we could help others."

Within a month, Banks had received dozens of messages from people talking about their struggles, and others who wanted to help. By Christmas of 2015 the group was buying presents for 57 kids and putting together wrapping parties to make the effort as perfect as possible.

"None of us knew each other but we all realized we were on to something big," she says. "We organized some fundraisers, formed a 501(c)3, and started shopping (specifically for kids in many cases)."

By 2016, Christmas Wishes had filled the wishes of 297 Ulster County kids, and started to stretch its calendar to include Thanksgiving, Easter, Valentine's Day and birthdays. In 2017 the organization had reached 976 kids from Ellenville to Saugerties and Marlboro, from Phoenicia to Kingston. References came from doctor's offices, schools, social workers and churches. Everything remained volunteer-based, from events to buying presents.

Using the past to see the future with a whole new set of eyes

But where did all this heart and generosity come from?

"I grew up in Port Ewen as one of four kids with two very hard-working parents and a dad who has always been absolutely crazy about Christmas," Banks explains. "He would put himself in debt for the best presents money could buy, a full spread. I've always aspired to be half the parent my dad was."

She was also rattled by that holiday without, when she needed a save. She's never explained to Keegan just how bad it was but has involved her son in all that's come since. Now 13, Keegan is a day student at a school in Rhinebeck, where he has started his own 'pay it forward' activities for his school's boarding students.

Banks insists that all of this has made her a better parent in her eyes, one who appreciates the differences each day brings, as well as the myriad of pleasures and unexpected smiles.

"I look at the world with a whole new set of eyes," Banks says of her work with her son who has special needs and coming back from what seemed a disaster at the time. "You keep your options down, learn to slow down. My son's world is chaotic enough for him; we work to make it easier."

"This is my life and I take it all very personally," she adds. "I take on too much, but we all do what we can. It's what it's all about."

Life gets better every year

Banks pauses, then mentions an image that's stuck with her: one hundred people all gathered and wrapping presents last autumn.

"It really looked like the North Pole," she says. "The impact of what we do, along with all involved in parenting, makes my life better every year."

For more on Christmas Wishes, including ways to get involved in their upcoming holiday season activities, and beyond, visit ChristmasWishesUC.com.

Paul Smart is a father who writes for a variety of publications in the Hudson Valley. He lives in Catskill.

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