The card with the meaning of Christmas

Among the papers and documents and newspapers that Mark Redmond wedges into his briefcase is a Christmas card he received a few years ago. While the papers come and go, that card remains. Redmond is the executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services. On the front of the card is a colorful, patchwork Santa Claus. I asked him who it was from and why he carries it with him.

“It’s from someone we’re very proud of here,” he said, “one of our greatest successes.”

It was sent to him from a 22-year-old personal banker and Spectrum alumna named Sara Young. Not long ago, she was living in Brandon, a kid who’d tried killing herself at 13 and was using heroin by 16. On Feb. 3, 2005, there was no reason to believe she’d be thriving — much less breathing — today. That was the night her Brandon home was raided.

“I was calling my mom to pick me up,” Sara recalled, “and I heard a big bang and the phone dropped. I thought it was a home invasion — drug dealers from Massachusetts, maybe, breaking in and stealing our stuff. My mom was screaming, ‘Please don’t do this!’ at someone, and so I had my best friend’s dad bring me home so I could see what was happening.” There, Sara was greeted by a row of flashing blue lights.

“Our house was torn apart, our clothes were everywhere, and I remember the front door wouldn’t shut,” she said. “It was just so cold.”

Her stepfather, Robert “Bones” Nichols, had been arrested two days earlier in Lebanon, N.H., for cocaine possession. He would die on Feb. 5, while housed in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington. (His death, according to a report by Vermont Protection & Advocacy, Inc., was preventable. The facility, the report suggests, minimized the seriousness of Nichols’s heroin withdrawal.)

At the time, Sara had been using marijuana since middle school and had recently escalated to heroin. A few years earlier, convinced her future was unbearably bleak, she had discovered a stash of amitriptyline — an antidepressant — and swallowed 13. Her mother found her, however, and so she was airlifted to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and survived.

This was the sort of nightmarish history that Sara had when she arrived at Spectrum as a 17-year-old. She was fresh out of rehab and had never lived in Burlington when she spent her first night at the Spectrum Pearl Street shelter. “I was a mess,” she recalled. “I was scared. I was terrified by the idea that once I left the shelter each morning, I couldn’t go back in for even a hairbrush.”

But her Spectrum addiction counselor and case manager worked with her, even when she was awash in anxiety and at risk to start using again: “The counseling program grounded me. Even though I had a pretty messed up background, everyone taught me that I could still accomplish things.”

Within a month, she was out of the shelter and living in one of the organization’s transitional living apartments. Through Vermont Adult Learning, she got her high school degree. Through Spectrum, she learned the skills she would need to apply for jobs and start a career – as well as the basic life skills she had missed because of her adolescence at home.

“Spectrum taught me everything my mom didn’t,” Sara said succinctly. “They also saved my life.”

Which is why, spontaneously, a few years later she dropped a Christmas card in the mail to Mark Redmond. “I just wanted him to him to know how grateful I was for everything,” she told me.

Sometimes, we recycle our holiday cards pretty quickly. And sometimes we don’t — especially when that card’s one of those rare and wondrous reminders that even a very lost soul can be saved.

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Peace.

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This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on December 2012. Chris’s next novel, “The Light in the Ruins” arrives on July 16, 2013. You can add it to your Goodreads “To Read” queue by clicking here.


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.