As president Barack Obama gives the State of the Union address tonight, 13-year-old Malik Bryant will watch him as one of the First Lady’s guests. Malik is a Chicago school boy who made headlines around the world when he sent out a letter to Santa asking for one simple thing, “All I ask for is safety. I just wanna be safe.”
Back home in Chicago, Michelle DiGiacomo, the person who first read Malik’s letter and set into motion his improbable journey to the State of the Union address, is working hard to fulfill Malik’s wish. DiGiacomo runs Direct Effect, a non-profit that oversees an annual Letters to Santa program which works with Chicago’s poorest public schools. She is worried that Malik’s new fame might attract unwelcome attention in his tough Englewood neighborhood. “We have to find his family a home in a safe neighborhood,” she says. “This can change Malik’s life if it doesn’t kill him first.”
DiGiacomo, a 54-year-old widowed mother of two, is an unlikely head for a charitable organization that helps thousands of children in Chicago every year. Her only source of income are her disability checks. She lives in a rented apartment. “You would think I was a bag lady,” she says, talking about how she hasn’t shopped for clothes for herself in years. She suffers from multiple medical ailments and hit the headlines in 2012 when she was arrested for receiving a shipment of medical marijuana from California. Last week, she received a pardon from outgoing Illinois governor Pat Quinn.
What she does have is the ability to get thousands of volunteers to donate generously to children in need. In 2013, DiGiacomo ensured gifts for over 10,000 children through Direct Effect’s Letters to Santa program, even though she was bedridden. Last December, Direct Effect organized gifts to over 8,500 Chicago school children. Last December, there were so many donations that Direct Effect, named because it is designed to directly impact children, was also able to help not just children but entire families in need.
The program, originally started by former reporter Jeff Zaslow (reporter and co-author of “The Last Lecture”), has helped thousands of school children receive at least one gift for Christmas since DiGiacomo and her late husband took over 13 years ago. Direct Effect has now gone on to add a Build a Backpack program in the summer to provide school supplies. The Chicago Public School gave the charity space to collect socks and underwear for public school children in need.
DiGiacomo, who works alone, has read hundreds of those letters over the years. “Kids have written about sexual abuse, physical abuse,” she says, noting that she immediately notifies the school authorities when she sees something alarming. Other times, there are heartbreaking letters asking for food or clothing. The letters are stark images of lives lived on the edge.
The letters are sent to volunteers who try to fulfill the wishes, or come close. Direct Effects now has schools adopting an entire school for the letters campaign, law firms volunteering to take on bunches of letters, families asking for a few letters to fulfill each year. “Once you answer a letter to Santa, you cannot stop,” says DiGiacomo. “It touches people’s hearts.”
Malik’s school was in the Letters to Santa program for the first time this year. DiGiacomo read every single letter from the new school, checking as she often does to make sure that the children write a sentence about themselves, and not just present the donor with a wishlist.
She says Malik’s letter stayed with her. “I wanted the president to read the letter – not so much to put the focus on Malik, but to focus on all the children on Englewood who feel this way,” she said. “I wanted him to be aware that there are so many children who live in fear.”
The letter reached the White House through an unlikely cast of characters. Ten years ago, Susan Miller Tweedy, wife of Grammy winning Wilco musician Jeff Tweedy, reached out to DiGiacomo to support her charity. The Tweedys have been steadfast supporters of Direct Effect ever since. Last December, the couple’s son, Spencer Tweedy, an upcoming musician, tweeted about Malik’s letter. The tweet went viral. At the same time, DiGiacomo reached out to Mike Quigley, her congressman, for his help in getting the letter to the White House.
When president Obama responded, the wave of media attention took Malik, his family and DiGiacomo by surprise. This week again, DiGiacomo’s phone has been ringing off the hook since news of Malik’s invitation became public.
The media attention has done little for Direct Effect. The charity is still cash strapped; last year, it brought in donations worth about half a million dollars but less than $10,000 in cash. Last weekend, DiGiacomo, who does not get a salary, took Malik’s mother shopping for new clothes in preparation for her trip to the White House and nearly missed paying her own rent in the process. A Go Fund Me Kickstarter-style campaign that she started In December is languishing.
Still DiGiacomo stays positive. “My work is my medicine,” she says. “I want to help more people. There are so many more Maliks out there.”