........A FACE TO FACE CHALLENGE
The following story was written about our Executive Director 10 years ago by Jeff Zaslow. It is an example of
the types of good deeds we hope to promote. Anyone can do this sort of thing. It doesn't cost any money, just a little time.
We believe that if everyone goes out of their way to help one person, we can make a huge difference in our world!
|ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN
THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES ON SEPTEMBER 5, 2000|
SMILE INSPIRES ACT OF KINDNESS
by JEFF ZASLOW
DiGiacomo recently entered a Chicago grocery store and changed a strangers life. She was in the checkout line and the bagger
was a 16 year old girl.
Michelle had noticed the girl at the store before. "She seemed so sweet and kind,"
Michelle says, "She has bright eyes, a pretty face, and she always smiles." But the first thing anyone observes
about this girl is this: She has severely prominent buck teeth.
Michelle, 40, approached the store manager and
learned that the girl's family can't afford dental surgery. And so she lives with a defect that most children-those whose
families have insurance or can afford the expense-have corrected.
Michelle came home that day and faxed a letter
to four dentists listed in the American Dental Association Web site. She told them about the girl-who wants me to call her
"Maria"-and asked them to donate their services.
"I grew up an overweight child, and I know children
can be cruel" Michelle wrote in her letter to the dentists. "I've also watched adults look at Maria's teeth, and
unintentionally hurt her with their eyes. It's a look of pity or disbelief. I can almost hear them thinking; She has such
a pretty face! Someone once asked me what my favorite body part was. I said, "my smile because it never gains weight."
A smile has always been important to me. It got me through days when I felt ugly in every other way."
so Michelle asked these dentist's to improve Maria's smile.
Two of the four volunteered to help. Michelle arranged
for years of orthodontics and oral surgery (including breaking and resetting Maria's jaw) that might otherwise cost $30,000.
(These generous dentists asked not to be identified)
Maria knew "a customer" was arranging to help her
and was desperate to meet this person. Though Michelle wanted to remain anonymous, she finally introduced herself to Maria,
and they hugged and cried.
I first heard from Michelle before she found an oral surgeon to operate for free. She
hoped I'd ask readers to contribute to Maria's expenses. When free dental care came through, I asked if I could still write
about Michelle and Maria. They agreed. "Maybe we can inspire other people to make a difference in someone's life,"
Maria is a very centered young lady. She tells her story without anger or self pity. As a girl,
she visited a dentist who explained that her overbite would need surgery and braces. Her parents had no insurance..."I
wasn't upset," she says, "I didn't pressure my parents, I said to myself, "I can stay like this."
She weathered the taunts of classmates. "They'd call me 'Beaver'. They'd leave toothbrushes on my desk. I'd walk in
the room, and they'd start laughing. I'd just walk away. I accepted the way I am because God made me like this. So let it
be. There's a reason, and I don't know what it is yet."
"Kids were rough," Maria's, mom says, "It
hurt me because it was hurting her. I'd tell her all the time, You'll be a better, stronger person because of this."
Children ask Maria, "Why do you smile all the time?" She replies, "I have no reason not to be happy."
Not wanting to make her parents feel guilty, Maria promised herself that she'd one day become a lawyer and pay for
the dental work on her own. When she learned about Michelle's kindness, she says, "I cried. I thought, "Wow, there
actually are nice people out there."
Maria's braces are on, and though the dental work could take four years,
she's very patient and grateful. "no matter what happens," she says, "I'm going to keep smiling."
|Click here for
Jeff's Wall Street Journal column! |
Guardian Angel cares for
kids who cry on the inside
July 15, 2003
BY MARY MITCHELL
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
"Who will cry for the little boy?
A good boy he tried to be
Who will cry for the little boy
Who cries inside of me?"
--Antwone Quenton Fisher
There's a little girl crying inside Michelle DiGiacomo.
And while bad childhood memories may darken the hearts of some, DiGiacomo peeled back the pain to let her heart shine.
"I've never seen a person like her before," said Carl. L. Lawson Sr., principal of Florence B. Price Elementary
School on the South Side. "She gives from her heart. Every time she comes here, she asks, 'What can I do?' "
Indeed, DiGiacomo is emerging as the guardian angel of Chicago Public School students. The founder of Direct Effect
Charities, DiGiacomo has given Christmas gifts to thousands of kids through her "Letters to Santa" program. She
also developed a rewards program as a way of encouraging students to improve their academics.
quality gifts," Lawson said. "She gave bikes to the two top kids. But she didn't want to leave any kid behind, so
she went out and bought books for all the students. The kind of drive she has is amazing."
I contacted DiGiacomo
a couple of weeks ago after receiving an e-mail in which she castigated the media for failing to let the public know how they
can help children.
When you consider how she came to start up a charitable organization that is dedicated to improving
the quality of life for impoverished public school students, DiGiacomo is quite a story herself.
it comes from my childhood. Although I had things, I wasn't raised with a lot of self-esteem. I relate to these children on
that level. Even though we grew up in different lifestyles, I still was emotionally abused. I have compassion because I think
I have suffered a lot in my lifetime," she said.
About 10 years ago, DiGiacomo lived in a North Side apartment
building and noticed that one of the tenants, an elderly woman, lived alone, ate her meals alone and basically had to fend
"She pretty much lived like a pauper," DiGiacomo said. "I started helping her out
when she needed stuff."
When the climb to the third floor became too much for the elderly woman, she moved
to a retirement home.
"She asked me if I could look at some papers. I took a look, and they were all stock
reports," DiGiacomo said. "She wanted to leave the money to me, but I wasn't comfortable with that. I suggested
she start a charitable foundation for the schools since she used to teach at a Chicago Public School."
same year, the woman broke her hip and had a stroke. DiGiacomo moved the elderly woman to her home. The woman's money went
into a trust to benefit three of her relatives, also elderly. When they pass away, the money will go into the charitable foundation.
DiGiacomo and her husband started Direct Effect Charities last year.
"We didn't get any donations,"
she said. "We did the whole Santa letter program--about 12,000 kids--and paid for it ourselves."
organizing the Santa letter program, DiGiacomo said, she discovered some Chicago students came to school on a regular basis
without socks and underwear.
"It is hard to come up with words. Imagine your child going to school with no
socks or underwear," she said. "I know from my experience that this does exist and it is a fact of many children's
Donald Schmitt, principal at Martin A. Ryerson Elementary School in Lawndale, said some students
could definitely use the clothing. "There are parents who are really scraping by, so they just don't have it," Schmitt
said. "A lot of schools go out of their way to buy them clothing. If you could see the eyes of kids who have no parents
light up when they see a new set of clothing, it makes your day."
Through Direct Effects Charities, DiGiacomo
has started the Chicago Kids' Closet, now housed in the old Chicago Public School warehouse at 47th and St. Louis. Throughout
the year, she will collect donations of socks and underwear that will be distributed to the schools.
is a very real need that exists out there," she said. "It is something people don't think about."
didn't want to talk about why some kids in Chicago don't have these basic essentials. As far as she's concerned, it doesn't
matter who's at fault. When kids suffer this kind of neglect, it robs them of their dignity and self-esteem. Her mission is
to care about the kids who cry inside.
"People will help if they know there is a need."
interested in helping DiGiacomo make a difference may reach her at (312) 296-5311, or visit Directeffectcharities.org.
CHOICEis a wonderful monthly magazine dedicated to natural and holistic living. Please click on the link to visit their
web site. You can also pick up a copy at your local WHOLE FOODS as well as health food and book stores! We are grateful to
them for the following article on our KID'S CLOSET;|
Building Self Esteem From the Inside Out...Starting with Underwear
by Matthew Alderton
Conscious Choice, December 2003
Michelle DiGiacomo was in a meeting with
school administrators at an inner-city school last Christmas when she learned that, instead of toys, some children were asking
Santa for underwear. "It's something I never thought about," says DiGiacomo, who has a 5-year-old daughter. "I
was just freaked out."
She learned that teachers were going out and spending their own salaries on underwear
and socks for young students who were coming to school without these clothing essentials. "I thought of my own daughter.
What if I didn't have that for her? It's a sick feeling."
As a result of this shock, DiGiacomo, 43, started
the Kid's Closet. It's part of a nonprofit organization she founded last year called Direct Effect Charities that focuses
on improving the lives of impoverished kids in Chicago's public schools. She runs the charity, a one-woman show, from her
home office. "The idea behind Direct Effect is to directly affect people," DiGiacomo says. "I wanted people
to know when they supported our charity they were supporting a child directly."
Clothes for the Kid's Closet
are housed at a Chicago Public Schools warehouse. The schools notify students -- kindergarteners through eighth graders --
that socks and underwear are available to them and, if they have a need, they are encouraged to go to their teachers or school
counselors. Teachers collect the child's sizes and Direct Effect supplies them with their order. Most importantly, all of
this is done in a confidential manner to support the pride and dignity of the kids.
"If a kid is asking for
underwear, they need it," DiGiacomo says. As she can tell you, a new pair of underwear covers a lot more than skin. From
an abusive home herself, she understands the emotional impact neglect can have on a child. "It shatters their self-esteem,"
she laments. A big part of the Kid's Closet, and everything Direct Effect does, is helping children build a positive self-image
by teaching them to make a difference in the world around them.
"Children are preciously innocent. They don't
see poverty," DiGiacomo says. "They need to know the realities of this world and be taught they can do something
to make a difference. Rather than make them think poverty does not exist, we need to teach them what they can do to help."
And if you teach by example, she urges, they will learn. DiGiacomo recently received a thank you letter from a little
girl who said she loves what Direct Effect does and wants to do the same thing when she grows up. "I'm betting she will,"
DiGiacomo says. "I believe in her. And I always say there's magic in believing."
Matthew Alderton is
a Chicago-based writer who's completing his journalism degree at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.
Tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, www.directeffectcharities.org
Send new socks & underwear
to: Direct Effect Charities, Chicago Kid's Closet, 4720 S. St. Louis, Chicago, IL 60632-3021
Send checks to: Direct
Effect Charities, 666 Dundee Road, Suite 1706, Northbrook, IL 60062
Contact Information: Direct Effect Charities,
Michelle DiGiacomo, 312-296-5311, firstname.lastname@example.org
resolution treats abuse, discipline alike
November 1, 2005
BY MARY MITCHELL SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
Is it ever appropriate to hit our children?
Before you answer, remember what we are actually trying to
teach our children when we give them a spanking, or as it was called when I was growing up, a "whupping." We are
trying to teach them that their behavior is so unacceptable they have to be punished.
Unfortunately for me, my
parents didn't believe in time-outs.
When we were disobedient or rude; when we had to have the last word; if we
stole; if we clowned in school; if we rolled our eyes in the direction of my mother or father, we got a whupping.
I grew up believing white people gave their children time-outs. White children could fall out in a grocery store, screaming
and kicking because they couldn't have something, and when they got home, they got a time-out, I thought. In other words,
while black kids were getting beatings, white kids were getting a talking-to.
Of course, I only believed that
because I was watching too much "Leave It to Beaver." Some white kids were getting spankings, and some were being
abused, just like black kids.
Still, the perception that corporal punishment is a part of black culture persists.
And for many parents, hitting a child -- no matter how it is done and why -- is seen as child abuse. We're to the point where
children boldly threaten to call the Department of Children and Family Services if they even think they are going to get a
Except for extreme cases, blacks are more likely to see whuppings as a necessary disciplinary tool,
and understand that there's a difference between corporal punishment and child abuse.
Death of Hill causes conflict
None of us is confused by what happened to Willa Hill, an 11-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her father
after she admitted stealing $2 from her step-sister. The father, Charles Hill, is accused of beating the girl with a TV
cable and buckle-end of a belt for as long as two hours.
There was a lot going on in this family, and Willa seemed
to have gotten the brunt of it.
Hill and the girl's mother, Kenya Waterford, were estranged. Waterford left Willa
and her two sisters with Hill earlier this year, and there were a total of seven children in the household. It is clear to
me that the alleged beating had nothing to do with trying to teach Hill a lesson. Tragically, shamefully, this young girl
was used as a whipping-post by someone who was filled with anger.
That's why I'm conflicted by the "Positive
Parenting Resolution'' that was passed by the Chicago City Council last week. Certainly, there are better ways to discipline
children than striking them, but there is a difference between child abuse and corporal punishment.
this resolution treats them as if they are one and the same.
Michelle DiGiacomo, the author of the resolution,
is the executive director of Direct Effect Charities, a not-for-profit group that runs the "Letters to Santa" and
"Chicago Kid's Closet," programs in Chicago Public Schools. Last year, while working in one of the schools, DiGiacomo
ran across an 11-year-old foster child who was being beaten by a foster parent.
"He had been beaten severely,
but when I asked him why he had not talked to a social worker, he told me he had,'' DiGiacomo said.
DiGiacomo claims to be a victim of child abuse and molestation, and was tearful when she recounted
how she intervened on the boy's behalf. After she reported the incident to CPS, the boy was put into protective custody. She
then brought together some of the teachers and the social worker who failed to report the beatings.
lunch. I attempted to show a movie and they all chit-chatted,'' DiGiacomo said. "Before she left, the social worker who
had let him down told me I'd better get used to whippings because it's a cultural thing. She told me her mama whipped her,
and she whipped her kids, and that's the way it is.''
The parenting resolution promotes non-violent, peaceful
forms of discipline, and calls on city departments and agencies to "distribute positive, non-violent parenting literature
in schools, churches, hospitals and community organizations.''
"It's more symbolic and more a start to the
city opening itself up to the fact that this is happening," DiGiacomo told me. "I've put a program in place called
'Stop the Violence,' that has been approved by CPS, and I'm working to put it in each school.''
14-year-old foster child that DiGiacomo rescued is now living in another foster home.
His new foster mother, Monique
Smith (who is also a social worker), says she wouldn't hit him because it is against department rules. She has raised four
boys and one daughter.
"I think there are times when spanking is appropriate, but there is also an over-reliance
on physical discipline, especially in the black community,'' Smith said.
I would agree. Many of us are operating
under too much emotional stress to use a rod on a child.
Warren High's Letters program brings cheer to Chicago school
December 11, 2008
GURNEE -- Warren High School students are playing Santa to about
1,400 needy children at a Chicago public school. Answering the letters the children have written to Santa, Warren students
purchase and wrap the gifts.
"We act like little elves," said Andrea Rusk, Student Council advisor
» Click to enlarge image
Madisen McBrien (left) and Richard Barber, freshmen at Warren High School, wrap a present at the school's
O'Plaine campus for a 5-year-old Chicago student.
» Click to enlarge image
Warren High freshman Kristin Agunloye puts a present she wrapped for a Chicago student into a backpack.
STORIES• Photos: Warren Christmas gifts
About Direct Effect Charities
Effect works with families below the poverty line in Chicago's public schools.
Web site: www.directeffectcharities.org
What: Non-profit raising awareness how people can help others in need.
Student Council members spearhead the Letters to Santa project at the
O'Plaine campus and National Honor Society members handle it at the Almond campus. Partnered with Direct Effect Charities,
Warren answers all the letters collected from Lloyd Elementary School in Chicago, which is a pre-kindergarten through fifth
"These are the kids who wouldn't get anything otherwise. They're really cute,"
Rusk said. "The (Warren) kids put a lot into organizing this. We make sure every single kid gets what they want. It takes
a lot of time and effort."
While many students elect to be responsible for answering one or two letters,
some classes, like Carolyn Thomas' English class, buy gifts for multiple letters at once. Her class raised enough money to
buy gifts for about 18 kids, Thomas estimated. Her class found a sponsor, Koenig and Strey in Libertyville, who matched their
funds dollar for dollar.
"This is just a great (charity). I've always done it personally and started
doing it with my classes," Thomas said.
The spending limit for each letter is $25. Many of the children
ask for school supplies or clothing. All the gifts will be loaded into trucks and sent to Lloyd Elementary on Dec. 15.
Thomas' class got a leg up on the project by having a gift wrapping party Tuesday afternoon.
Patel, 14, wrapped gifts for a girl who asked for clothes and a doll. She loaded the wrapped presents into a backpack for
"We thought it would be good (to do) for a good cause. The kids don't have much," Patel
Thomas said that her class participation in the Letters to Santa effort gets a little bigger every
year. "I just think how awesome these students are. It just shows what great things kids can do," Thomas said.
Warren has been participating in the Letters to Santa program for about five years. The program is in its eighth
year, said Direct Effect Charities Executive Director Michelle DiGiacomo.
Individuals, families, corporations
and law offices answered about 10,000 letters this year, she said. While some other high schools do answer letters, she said
Warren handles the most letters. They took about 150 letters the first year they participated and then answered over 800 another
year. It kept escalating until DiGiacomo arranged for Warren to work with Lloyd Elementary directly.
you imagine if I had 25 high schools doing 500 letters? If I could get the word out there and get enough schools to participate,
oh my god, I could do every school that needs this program. I would love to have 10 or 20 more Warren Townships -- that would
be a dream come true," DiGiacomo said.