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Annette John-Hall: Stories to warm the heart during holidays

With all of the evil we've witnessed in the last week, I'm so thankful my mailbox is overflowing with your testaments to goodness.

With all of the evil we've witnessed in the last week, I'm so thankful my mailbox is overflowing with your testaments to goodness.

I recently asked you to share your stories of giving, to combat the want-want-want narrative of what the holiday season has come to mean. We've become a nation fixated on getting out of expectation and on giving out of obligation - but only if it's a half-off-coupon obligation.

My hope was that stories of unconditional giving would help us understand that even the smallest selfless act has profound power. The extra added is in the realization that the more we do for others, the less we need for ourselves.

While the unfathomable tragedy in Newtown, Conn., may have dampened our yuletide cheer, your e-mails reminded me that the joy of giving is alive and well.

From Jude Lucien, the 25-year-old engineer who has begun an early giving legacy by becoming a Big Brother volunteer, to 25-year-old Nehemiah Davis, whose foundation feeds the homeless and hosts events for children in need in West Philadelphia; Archbishop Wood student Valerie Bell and Penncrest teacher David Stango, rallying fellow teachers and classmates to collect a hundred pounds of food for Philabundance; and octogenarians Charlie Blackman and Lou Quate, who volunteer their time and able bodies to assist their less-mobile senior pals at the Center for Positive Aging in Ardmore. Readers flooded my inbox with inspiring tales of dozens of givers.

Making a difference

A couple of years ago, Lara Kelly heard about a terrier mix named Dr. Harrison who had been given up by his family. The good Dr. lived at the city's animal shelter, the Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia. But the poor thing was house-trained and had been making himself sick because nobody took him out when he needed to go.

"I heard his story and I felt responsible," Kelly says. "I couldn't foster a dog, but I had a window of time where I felt like I could make a difference, at least with this animal."

Since then, Kelly, 45, who works for the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, has volunteered to walk dogs 10 hours a week, more if she has the time.

The reward, she says, comes in her "amazing, generous" fellow volunteers and the ability to actually see the difference she's making.

"Being of service is such a visceral experience," says Kelly, who is happy to report that Dr. Harrison was adopted. "When you do it once, you'll keep coming back, whether it's with a person or an animal."

Carol Pasquarello knows that feeling. For years, her selflessness has improved the quality of life in her neighborhood, whether she realizes it or not.

During the holiday season, Pasquarello, 56, and daughter Jessica, 16, a junior at Neumann-Goretti High, purchase toys for various toy drives throughout South Philadelphia.

Pasquarello also solicits supermarkets for the food pantry at her parish, Epiphany of Our Lord at 11th and Jackson, which provides free food on a need basis year-round.

But her most gratifying advocacy work is in assisting libraries. Recently, Pasquarello's donation of 100 books from her home branch at 20th and Shunk helped renovate Rowen Elementary School's library in the Northeast.

"I feel like I'm just one little person, playing a small role," she says. "If I'm outside sweeping the street because litter makes me crazy, I hope I set a good example. Maybe somebody will say, 'Let me pick up a broom and help Carol.' "

Talk about a gift that keeps on giving.

The Bible says "hallelujah" is the highest praise. So hallelujah to all who give, and happy holidays to one and all.