When Marley Muschara told her mom in the early fall of 2018 that she wanted to give away her Christmas gifts to the homeless, Marley was met with a mixture of confusion and skepticism.
“I kind of put it off,” her mom, Maggie, said.
But Marley insisted, and insisted, and insisted, and Maggie became convinced this was not the frivolous plan of a then-8-year-old.
“It makes me sad,” Marley said.
Marley, now 9, has found a way to fulfill her goal by helping children at Family Promise of Forsyth County, a local nonprofit that works to break the cycle of homelessness and dependency, give gifts to their parents for Christmas.
This year is the second that Marley and her mom have worked with Family Promise, which has four families in their program at a time. Marley and her mom meet with the children and ask for four to five gift ideas for each parent. Marley and Maggie then buy and wrap the gifts and deliver them to the children in Family Promise’s day center on Christmas Eve to give to their parents.
According to Tina Huck, executive director of Family Promise of Forsyth County, it flips the script on the usual charitable efforts during the Christmas holiday that focus on giving gifts to children in need.
“For me, one of the things that was always important as a child was that I could give my parents something (for Christmas),” Huck said. “... I wanted our children in our program to have that same experience. So it worked out perfectly that they were willing to do it and make that the project.”
Marley’s first exposure to homelessness came on the family’s regular trips to visit her grandparents in Senoia, a small city 35 miles southwest of Atlanta in Coweta County.
As they passed through Atlanta, Marley noticed the homeless who slept under overpasses.
“I always see people in tents and under the bridges,” Marley said.
Marley felt pulled to help, so she decided to make “homelessness kits,” with the help of her family. She filled the kits with useful supplies and gift cards and stored them in the car to pass out to any homeless people they encountered.
But Marley eventually felt compelled to do more, and so she concocted the idea to give away her Christmas gifts. Initially, Maggie didn’t know how to let Marley channel that idea. Maggie surveyed friends for possibilities, and a member of her small group at Browns Bridge Church recommended she contact Family Promise. Maggie met with Huck, and the two came up with the plan that Marley has done the past two years.
“I said, ‘She’ll do whatever you need her to do,’” Maggie said, “because that’s kind of Marley’s heart. Whatever the need is she’s willing to do.”
The children’s gift ideas for their parents were equal parts conventional and poignant. Marley and Maggie remember kids wanting to get their dad a ring so he could give it to their mother; she’d sold her wedding ring when the family was going through a rough patch.
Marley and Maggie went to Kohl’s and picked out a ring. A month later, during a visit to Family Promise, they saw the mom wearing it.
“The kids still talk about being able to give their mom a ring,” Huck said.
And Marley’s project led to her getting more involved with Family Promise. She and her mom went through the organization’s two-hour training for volunteers and now regularly spend time at the day center doing crafts or playing games. They’ve helped dye eggs for Easter, paint nails and make Christmas ornaments. They bring games like Bingo, Sequence and Checkers.
Marley felt nervous her first time volunteering at Family Promise, but she said the children in the program quickly put her at ease.
“I kind of felt like these people seem normal, like us,” Marley said. “They’re still really happy.”
Huck was eventually struck by Marley’s comfort level around the children and their families.
“So many adults have preconceived notions of what somebody who is experiencing homelessness is like. Children don’t really have that,” Huck said. “... (Marley) was very open that these children were just like her, they just didn’t have a home.”
Since getting involved with Family Promise, Marley and her family have also become advocates for the nonprofit in the community. Marley’s family lives in Ashebrooke, the subdivision whose homeowners decorate their houses in spectacular light displays for Christmas and host an annual “Night of Lights” to raise funds for a family in need or a local nonprofit. Marley nominated Family Promise this year, and Ashebrooke selected them.
And Marley’s passion to help Family Promise doesn’t seem to be waning anytime soon. She has more ideas of how to serve the families, particularly a summer camp that would introduce her peers to the organization and encourage them to volunteer.
That doesn’t surprise her mom.
“I just think her heart to give and her ability at the age of 9 to see the needs of others that clearly, it’s just amazing,” Maggie said.
Marley added: “I just love it because I get to help people, and when I get to help people, I feel happy.”