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The Angels Among Us

by on December 02, 2013 7:30 AM

What is it about this season that brings out the best in us?

With Thanksgiving 2013 in the books, we now look ahead to December, the end of the year and, for many of us, the holiday season. Although it seems buried under all of the commercialism and excess, the true spirit of the holiday season is often found in the good works of our friends and neighbors. This year for my columns in December, I plan to feature those Angels who live among us – the people right here in our community who make a difference by giving of themselves and giving to others.

Let me introduce you to Michelle DiMidio.

Michelle is a State College mom and small business owner. I first met Michelle years ago when she was working at the State College branch of the YMCA. My Penn State students were looking for volunteer hours and Michelle was running programs that needed some extra support.

From there, we developed a connection and have remained friends. Originally from Port Royal, Michelle is a 1989 graduate of Penn State in Kinesiology. She has since opened her own personal fitness training and Boot Camp business in State College. She and her husband Wes juggle busy careers and schedules, parenting her three teenagers (Jack, Mariel and Nick) and giving back to their community.

As my friend on Facebook, I have enjoyed Michelle's posts about what she has in store for her boot camp cadets, the trials and tribulations of parenting in the new Millenium, her enviable travel schedule and the joys of living in our community. She is also a diehard Penn State fan.

Five years ago, Michelle and her then 13 year-old-son Jack were at Walmart on North Atherton Street and noticed the Salvation Army's Angel Tree tags hanging on a Christmas tree. The Angel Tree program identifies the "wish lists" of children in eligible families from the Centre Region and provides the family with a food voucher for a holiday dinner.

Each child can ask for 6 wishes – 3 toys and 3 non-toys. The families are vetted based on income and expenses and cannot be participating in other holiday support programs. Michelle said that as she and Jack looked at the tree and all of the tags, she said "I wish we could cover all of these tags." Jack responded "Mom, you can't do all of this."

Michelle set to work. By contacting her friends, her social media contacts and clients that first year, Michelle and her team were able to make a better Christmas for many, many local children. She said when she picked Jack up after school that day, he couldn't believe it when she told him that all of the tags were taken. Her efforts and enthusiasm have continued to grow each year.

Last year, the DiMidio team alone assisted 111 children with over 700 gifts.

"I can't say enough about Michelle" says Ellen Mayer of the Salvation Army of Centre County. "She is so organized, so enthusiastic and so effective, it's unbelievable."

Michelle has been recognized by the Salvation Army as its Volunteer of the Year because of her efforts with the Angel Tree Program.

Michelle explained to me that the wish lists of each child are put on individual tags and spread out all over the area. Her plan was to consolidate each child's list and put those lists out to her network. According to Mayer, the members of Michelle's team take on the wish lists of individual children, and in some cases, whole families.

Michelle shared with me that her focus has been teenagers in the program because others tend to pick up the wish lists of infants and children first. The gifts are given to the parents or guardians who then wrap them for the children to open on Christmas morning.

It's become a tradition around this time of year to read Michelle's posting on Facebook asking "Who is in for the Angel Tree program?" and to see her wide network step up to help. One of Michelle's recent Facebook posts brought me to tears. It read, "Every year I read the Angel Tree Christmas wish lists and every year I cry. This one got to me today. It is from a teenage boy and his six wishes include: two tee-shirts, cologne, deodorant, a light jacket, and a toothbrush."

Considering the news reports of pushing and shoving in lines on Black Friday and what sometimes feels like excess during this time of year, it served as a reminder to me that there are neighbors and friends in Happy Valley who can use our help.

According to Mayer, "We depend on our volunteers in so many ways. Michelle is like a one woman machine." Several groups on campus including the Society of Women Engineers and Women in Business have also signed up to participate. This year's program has over 400 children participating in the Angel Tree program with additional children and families on the waiting list.

It's not too late to get involved in the Angel Tree program. Christmas trees with "wish tags" can be found at both Walmart locations in State College, and at Curves, East Coast Health and Fitness, Victory Sports, Cracker Barrel and Denny's to name just a few. You can find more information about the Salvation Army and the Angel Tree program by clicking HERE.

Michelle DiMidio and the Salvation Angel Tree program. Proving again that one person can make a difference.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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