The Covenant House, a shelter that provides basic services to the homeless youth of Atlantic City and Newark, opened its current building on Atlantic Avenue in 1997. From that date on, the staff made a promise to keep the spirit of the holidays alive for anyone who walked through their doors.
"Every year, we said we are going to fulfill every kid's wish list," said Brian Nelson, site director at Atlantic City.
Often, Covenant House must tap into its finances in order to provide presents, but some people choose to help give - year after year.
In 2010, Estell Manor resident, Lori "Laura" Costantino read an article in "The Press" about a young man who walked from Mount Holly to find shelter in Atlantic City's Covenant House. The story hit home, having experienced homelessness herself as a teenager. The Trump Marina beverage server decided that she would shop for every Covenant House resident that year, with the help of family, friends and co-workers.
"It was just (Lori's) energy - it was incredible," Nelson recalled. "We gave her the (wish) list, and she put every ounce of energy into it. … I'm shopping for three people, she (was) shopping for 30."
Following Thanksgiving 2011, Costantino was found to have stage III pancreatic cancer. In September, she died, leaving behind a large family unwilling to let her kind actions come to an end.
"It's just that Lori always believed in goodness," said her sister, Kelly Odee, of Elwood. "That was her biggest thing, just showing an act of kindness to someone. Lori would be so happy and so proud to know that she couldn't be here to do this, but that we would continue this for her. … She would still be doing this if she could."
On a recent Sunday, Lori's family, including her son, Peter, 13, and daughter, Caroline, 11, wrapped more than 100 gifts to deliver to the Covenant House crisis center and Rights of Passage, its independent living program on South Carolina Avenue. Half the donations were delivered to homeless youth in Philadelphia.
The next Tuesday, more than 20 members of her family came to Atlantic City to drop off wrapped gifts - anything from dollhouses to fleece blankets - to be opened by residents on Christmas morning. This year, the family attached stars to the packages reading, "I Believe," a saying they often associated with Lori.
"It lets our kids know that they aren't forgotten," said Roslyn Talley, associate site director of Covenant House. "A lot of kids come and say they aren't going to have a Christmas this year."
Odee, who relied heavily upon her Sugar House Casino employees for donations, wanted to be clear that she was simply helping out her sister, that this good deed wasn't one to call her own. Yet, Covenant House appreciated Odee's donations just as much.
"(Kelly) is just so generous," Talley said. "She was kind of just like her sister. … She had a great heart. They were very much alike."
Others, like Lori's family, have given continuously during the holidays.
Atlantic City residents Al Bailey, and his wife Patricia, have given to the Covenant House for the past 10 years, also fulfilling the resident's personal wishes, as well as providing a "house" gift.
In years past, Bailey, whose son Alonzo worked at the Covenant House in the 1990s, has supplied flat-screen televisions and washer and dryers. This year, due to flooding from Hurricane Sandy, he put down new carpeting on all the floors.
"He is the Santa of Covenant House," Talley said. "They are definitely a group and family that we look forward to working with."
Bailey relies on donations from local donors, including physicians and lawyers and his neighbors of the Bungalow Park section of Atlantic City - a section that was also hit by the storm.
But Bailey couldn't resist giving again this year.
"My saying is, 'Much is given, much is required.' We don't know these children that stay there. … My (own) kids are involved with me in doing this, and hopefully this passes down to them. They'll still pick it up and always look out for someone else," he said.
And Covenant House couldn't be happier to have received each and every donation, knowing the joy it brings their residents.
"With the wish list, it's a little bit more personal, and the kids will smile on Christmas when they get those gifts," Nelson said.
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