[Life] Angels Among Us at Christmas

 Angels flying close to our hometowns

Salvation Armey Giving Tree in place at First Choice Barbers

 by Mike Siroky

There is proof that angels live among us.

Each holiday season, the Salvation Army places Angel Trees in businesses. The idea is children in need of presents have ornaments with their names on them hung on the trees and then anyone can come by, answer the request and deliver the goods back to the tree site.

The children get a renewed belief in Christmas.

The donors get much more.

So it is that a brand-new business, First Choice Barbers in Portage, 5973 McCasland Ave., has such a tree in place.

But that is only the first part of the holiday happiness story.

Carlos Chavez is the new proprietor of the business.

But he is not new to the idea of sharing Christmas joy. He started as a recipient.

“Times were tough and we accepted what we could when I was a kid,” said the Portage native. “When I was a kid, things were tough for us, too, so I know what it is like to hope for something you want for Christmas.

“So, while this is actually first one I’ve done, it is part of giving back to my community.”

He said his sister-in-law had the idea and told him about the Angel Tree and the Salvation Army.

“So I made some phone calls to find out about it,” Chavez said.

“I volunteered for 50 kids and they actually got quite emotional about it, said they had never had anyone start with 50. It apparently is a large number, but it is the number I picked.”

Vicki Burge is part of the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.

“We are all over Porter County, through Chesterton and Valparaiso,” Burge said. “As many as we can get out.

“The key to this is to make sure even the neediest kids get at least something new for Christmas, nothing used, something to unwrap.”

Thought children are the centerpiece, the families and the family of the community also benefit.

“Everybody has needs,” Burge said.

And the Army answers. The rewards for the givers may be greater than the rewards to the recipients.

Burge has eight years’ worth of stories to tell.

“I rode on a firetruck with firemen who were answering the requests of a child who was dying of cancer,” she said. “They answered his every wish.”

Burge said the Angel trees are just part of the larger giving season.

“We have a Neediest Families program, where other families will pick a name and supply gifts for everyone. It is like they adopt that family.”

One of the nicer stories this season is of a family group not from the area who chose Porter County for a family reunion because that is where their family started, though none of them live here now. They are all from other states.

“They had researched us and knew what we were doing and they adopted a family, even though they are not in this area anymore,” Burge said.

“Overall, it is pretty cool. We encourage people to look at the requests as kind of a guidance but to make their own choices as to how much they can help.”

Burge said there is a real sense of “Do right thing.”

“A lot of people (among donors) say doing the right thing is of crucial importance,” Burge said.

Distribution is done on separate days, one for food, one for families and the last Friday before Christmas for the toys. Businessmen have volunteered space for the distribution. Volunteers help with the dispersals.

Another crucial aspect is all the donors want to be anonymous. This is a gift from the family of the community to families in the community.

And so the joy spreads.

“Every time a family comes to get the gifts, they also get a gift certificate for food,” Burge said. “We decided to not be so presumptuous to pick out their Christmas dinner so they go to local grocery stores and pick out their own.”

The stores thus join in the joy as they help feed the community.

Chavez believes in his hometown. In a sense, it is how he has become a new businessman in it.

“I have cut hair my whole life,” he said. “But I just graduated to get licensed.”

The 1992 graduate of Portage high school had a lot of jobs since then. He was most recently a mechanic before this. He wanted to become a certified electrician but was told there was a five-year waiting list just to start.

“But I made being a barber my first choice. I can’t complain about the way it is working out,” Chavez said. “Barbering was more than finding a means to an end.”

The immediate plan was to “give back” to the community, he said.

“Customers just don’t stop here with gifts; their generosity is amazing and they keep giving and giving.”

The site of the shop was established as a neighborhood barber shop, even if the most-recent former owner sort of just drifted out of business.

“It had been a barber shop since 1959,” Chavez said. “It was one barber shop, then another then another.”

Now it is all his.

“I don’t even think about it as work,” Chavez said. “Not many people can say they found what they wanted to do all their life and then did it.

“When I got my hands on it and reopened it, it was just right.

“I had always goy my hair cut here. My goal was to come to this barbershop because it had been established for 30-40-50 years. Everyone once liked the barbers here.”

The traditions of such barbering are not lost on the new guy.

“I figured we can do a little more, make it the way it is supposed to be,” Chavez said.

“We have a motto: ‘If they butcher it, we’ll fix it.’

“Come and get in the chair and we’ll make it look like you had a real barber.”

It’s a slight dig at the national chains of barbers. Chavez observed you never know what you are going to get there. And the person who cuts your hair this time might not even be around when next you need a haircut.

“It’s all about consistency,” Chavez said. “Everyone wants to be able to say, ‘That’s my barber’ and know what to expect every time.”

The neighborhood sometimes seems whole again with a business in a familiar place with a familiar face running it

“So many customers come in and are so happy to see the shop reopened,” Chavez said. “It is open six days a week and I am always here.”