It was Christmas Eve morning when Janet Balmeceda parked in front of a quiet Bluffton home and met one of the women she calls her “angels.”
Heather Price, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, walked out to the car and handed Balmeceda everything she would need to give her 9-year-old son Matthew the first real Christmas he would be able to remember.
Balmeceda and her son lived in a family shelter run by Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse for two months this year after the Hilton Head native moved back to the area, Balmeceda said.
The mother and son lived in Argentina for the previous four years to be near Matthew’s father, but conditions there forced them to return to the U.S. this year with nothing but four suitcases, Balmeceda said.
Never miss a local story.
“Matthew’s never had a real Christmas he can remember. No presents to open. No Santa,” Balmeceda said.
Balmedeca works as a private tutor and susbtitute teacher, but is still struggling to recover from losing everything she owned in Argentina.
She worried about being able to give Matthew the traditional Christmas she wanted for him, she said.
Balmeceda and her son are one of about 15 families adopted this Christmas by members of the Facebook page Bluffton/ Hilton Head Ask and Answer, a community message board that now has more than 5,700 members and often gathers people to help with local causes, such as relief after Hurricane Matthew this fall.
Posts on the page this holiday season connected families in need with locals willing to help. Members of the page then bought Christmas presents for about 50 local kids in the last two weeks alone, estimated Heather Price, the page’s administrator who coordinated the effort.
“I call all these people my elves,” Price said. “There are so many that were willing to help especially in the first Christmas after a disaster. It's been amazing. And it's been exhausting.”
Price and her friend, Toni Persutti, have been working almost non-stop the past two weeks to identify families in need through Price’s church, Lowcountry Community Church, and suggestions on the page.
Price coordinated gifts using donations from the community, while Persutti worked to pick up and deliver presents.
In time, so many presents accumulated in Price’s home that the gifts filled two rooms, Price said.
“There is no shame in needing help sometimes. We are meant to lean on each other,” Persutti said. “The thought of so many children’s faith in Santa being preserved for another year from just a little bit of work was well worth it.”
Members of the page, coordinated by Price and Persutti, were able to give a family displaced during Hurricane Matthew a bed. They also bought Spiderman and “Frozen” presents for a mother with three young children living out of a hotel in Hardeeville since Hurricane Matthew, among many other families, Price said.
As for the 9-year-old Matthew, Price and Persutti paid special attention.
Matthew never had a room of his own before he moved with his mother into a Bluffton apartment this October, Balmeceda said. Price, Persutti and their “elves” set out to change that.
This Christmas, Matthew will open a full set of Pokemon themed decorations for his new room, now decorated in pre-furnished florals.
As Price handed Balmeceda the gifts, she also pointed to another bag of presents.
“That one is for you,” Balmeceda remembers Price telling her.
“Well that made me cry. It’s been five years since I've opened a wrapped Christmas present,” Balmeceda said. “You know, I believe God works through people. That’s what this feels like to me. I’ll never forget what they’ve done for me. It feels like Christmas.”