How A Boy’s Small Gift Changed 1000s of Lives – Wonderful Holiday Story from Angel Tree Program

How A Boy’s Small Gift Changed 1000s of Lives – Wonderful Holiday Story from Angel Tree Program
Posted in: Acts of Kindness, Good Deeds, Good News, Inspirational People, Inspirational Stories, Random Acts of Kindness, Random Acts of Kindness Ideas

In 1979, Salvation Army Majors Charles and Shirley White weren’t thinking about helping thousands of kids across the country—they just wanted to help the kids in their own community who otherwise wouldn’t get holiday gifts. It started at a shopping mall in Lynchburg, Virginia, where the Whites would listen to the kids’ Christmas wishes, knowing how unlikely it was that they’d get those gifts. So they decided to put a Christmas tree in the mall and, after hearing a child’s wish, write the wish and the child’s name and age on a card that pictured an angel and hang it on the tree. The idea was that shoppers would take a card off the tree and buy the listed gift for that child. And it worked—the program served more than seven hundred kids that first year.

Three years later, the Whites were transferred to Tennessee, where they established another “Angel Tree” program. Then it was only a matter of time before publicity about it gained so much momentum that Angel Trees were sprouting across the country.

Angel Tree

One of those programs, located in North Carolina, provided a fifteen-year-old boy named Jimmy with a gift that would prove to be a bright spot amid dark circumstances. Jimmy had been placed in foster care at the age of nine and grew up in group homes, foster homes and detention centers. He was homeless at times and lived a childhood marked by neglect and abuse. But the guitar he received through the Angel Tree program sparked a fire in him, and as long as he had it, no matter where he was bounced around to or what abuse he was enduring, he could turn to music for escape.

When Jimmy was sixteen, homeless and not attending school, he showed up in a shop owned by Russell and Bea Costner, an elderly couple. He asked if there was any work he could do for them, and they hired him to mow their lawn on a regular basis, which earned him enough to eat every week. As he writes in his memoir, Walk to Beautiful, Jimmy was taking a break from the mowing one day when Bea surprised him by asking where he lived. Though he replied that he lived up the road, Bea told him he was welcome to move into the spare bedroom. Jimmy figured they’d wind up kicking him out within a week just like so many others had done, but a week’s worth of food and showers sounded pretty good and he accepted.

Just like that, Jimmy became part of the family. Russell took him for a haircut and bought him clothes for school, and Jimmy started attending school again. In fact, he never missed another day. He even turned out on Senior Skip Day and won an award for his three years of perfect attendance.

He also started going to church with the Costners, where he liked to listen to Bea play the piano for the congregation. Her passion encouraged him to pursue his own music, and when he joined a rock band, she was his most loyal fan. Whether it was at a pageant or a cookout, she never missed a performance, and she always sat in the first row.

Jimmy took voice lessons and practiced whenever he could. The first song he wrote—with Bea in mind—was called “My Only Friend.” When he became a corrections officer after high school, he played it for the prisoners.

Eventually, he landed a job as a songwriter for a music label, and fifteen years after he’d met Bea and Russell, his first record came out and its first single went to No. 3 on Billboard’s country charts.

In the years since, Jimmy Wayne Barber—aka Jimmy Wayne—has gone on to release two more albums and six more Top 40 country hits. And he says his musical success wouldn’t have happened without the Angel Tree program. The guitar he received ultimately took him down the path to becoming a musician, not to mention providing him with a platform for giving back.

“That’s where it all started,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I would not be here, wouldn’t have the success and have the home I live in, have the car I drive, the clothes I wear—none of this would have happened had it not been for a guitar. And where did I get the guitar? So I’m in debt and making sure that I do my part in raising awareness for a program that helped me out when I had nothing.”

To do his part, he tells the Angel Tree story in a song and a novel, both titled Paper Angels. He hopes they inspire people to participate as gift-givers in the program.

He took a break from his music career in 2010 and used his stardom to help foster youths. Specifically, he walked 1,660 miles from Nashville to Phoenix to raise awareness about their plight.

Jimmy has also created a nonprofit organization, Project Meet Me Halfway, to help foster youths by inspiring people to become volunteers, raising money to support nonprofits that help abused and neglected children, and advocating for legislation to allow youths to remain in foster care until age twenty-one, which would provide them with more time to navigate the challenges of obtaining health care, education, employment and housing. (In many states, foster youths “age out” of the system at eighteen.) And capitalizing on his fame, Jimmy has recruited corporations to support Project Meet Me Halfway. Planning is also underway for the organization’s first house for older foster youths. And in honor of the woman who made a home for him, Jimmy is calling it Bea’s Home for Youth.

It’s amazing what one act of kindness – a guitar given to Wayne — started, and how many thousands of kids it wound up helping.

This story is from the book, HumanKind, which is a National Bestseller filled with true stories about how a small deed can make a world of difference. “Elegant and wise” (Deepak Chopra), “The most uplifting and life-affirming book in years” (Forbes). “You’re going to love this book.” (NPR). Check out Humankind: Changing the World One Small Act At a Time.

I’ve seen the results of gift programs like Angel Tree Program. Parents who can’t afford gifts are ecstatic to be able to provide their kids with a holiday. The gifts are a relief for a parent who wants to give something to their kids; the parent knows their kids can see what is going on around them at holiday time. Even the smallest gifts are treasures to kids who have so little. And, for kids who have no families, it’s a symbol that they aren’t forgotten and that someone cares about them.


Notes from teenagers who received presents from holiday gift programs.

The post office, Salvation Army’s Angel Tree Program, Toys for Tots and One Simple Wish all provide opportunities to give holiday gifts to kids in needs. Here are details about where you can find opportunities.

  • One Simple Wish has a list of wishes from foster youth. The wishes are compiled by social workers and other professionals who work with children.
  • Call your local Salvation Army to see if they have an Angel Tree Program. You can use the site’s zip code search to find your location. Some locations will allow businesses to take an entire tree for their lobby.
  • Operation Letters to Santa. This site allows you to provide gifts to kids who write letters to Santa. You’ll have to check the web site to see if your post office participates.
  • You can bring new unwrapped gifts to your local Toys for Tots drop off center. Toys for Tots is run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and distributes toys across the U.S.
  • Other great places to contact are your local children’s hospital and your local homeless shelter.

Want more positivity? If you enjoyed this content, checkout the book from which this story is excepted — HumanKind: Changing the World One Small Act At a Time!

In the spirit of giving here are 103 Random Acts of Kindness that you can perform to help others and 24 ideas for raising kind and grateful kids.

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HumanKind Book