It was 9:07 AM and Todd Lochner, General Manager at Principle Toyota, was pacing the showroom floor. He and fellow team members were waiting on precious “cargo” that had been due to arrive at 9:00 AM: fifty children from Winridge Elementary School who were being granted their Christmas wishes a bit early this holiday season. A collaborative effort between Principle Toyota, Walmart and Chick-fil-A, the children were hand-picked by teachers and school staff based on numerous factors which included need and demonstration of social and academic excellence at school. The combined nervous and joyous energy evident as arrival time approached was indicative of how much this event meant to everyone at Principle Toyota and was reflected in a brief exchange amongst them as the school bus pulled into the parking lot.
Sales Manager Martin Navarro took the floor to thank everyone for being so involved in this inaugural event. He turned to Todd and began personally thanking him for all that had been done but was quickly interrupted. “No,” Todd replied. “This isn’t because of me. This is because of you, all of YOU.” He explained that it was Martin’s idea, in fact, to pull their resources together and give to these most well-deserving students. As he spoke, Nicole Stewart, a Principle team member standing next to me, fought back tears. She later told me that while wrapping the presents in preparation for this day it occurred to her how deeply rewarding an experience this had been and one that she would always remember- and hoped to duplicate next year.
“Merry Christmas!” everyone yelled as the children streamed into the showroom, most appearing slightly confused as they looked around. The youngest of them thought this was merely a field trip to look at new cars. The older children, with whom that explanation didn’t quite make sense, believed they were there to sing Christmas carols. So, shortly after they lined up in front of the Christmas tree and sang a few songs, the true reason for their visit was revealed. Santa walked in to both the loudness of screams and the quietness of shock. The best was yet to come.
Each child had written a wish list and the wrapped gifts crowding the floor at Principle Toyota were the very items from those lists. Every single child was receiving EXACTLY what they’d wished for! One of the teachers, Lori Liggins, explained how she and co-workers meticulously shopped for the children. For one child’s list assigned to her the shopping hit a snag when an item proved difficult to find. “But I had to find it,” she said. “I didn’t stop looking until I found that last thing on his list.” It was an emotional chat for us both, during which I was reminded that our teachers are the epitome of our city’s Grit and Grind culture because they embrace it with all heart. They give and they don’t give up.
There were many stirring surprises that morning as everyone had gathered in the showroom to celebrate this season of giving: a moving rendition of “Silent Night” sung by one of the teachers whom some fellow workers had no idea could sing; a young boy with sensory sensitivity whose tears gave way to laughter when he opened his gift and saw Santa had delivered on his promise; a young girl whose wish for a Wonder Woman doll came true and she held that doll close to her heart, literally, for the duration of the morning. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all came to those of us who were there as observers, maybe having slightly underestimated the impact this event was going to have on those who planned and participated in its execution. I don’t believe there was a single team member at Principle Toyota, a teacher or staff member from Winridge Elementary, or media personnel present who did not feel the pure euphoria these children experienced in being the recipients of wishes come true. Even if just for a few hours of one day, all of the extenuating circumstances that sometimes crowd their lives and cause them to grow up more quickly than any child should were nullified. That in itself is a gift.
“Be kind to a stranger today,” Santa told us after speaking individually with each of the fifty children. He was so right in his instruction and, in one of the best examples of foreshadowing, Todd, Martin and everyone at Principle Toyota have already done just that. This holiday season, let’s all follow suit in their example and that of the teachers at Winridge Elementary School:
Don’t give up.
Be kind to a stranger today.