Claude Lewis

is a longtime

Philadelphia journalist

Several readers wrote in response to my column on Thanksgiving. I said Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday because it is primarily a celebration of family, friends and community, a time to acknowledge our values, our gifts and whatever prosperity we might enjoy.

My complaint about most holidays is that their real meaning is too often lost in a frenzy of celebration and shopping largely unrelated to the occasion. Jesus has been deposed by a fat man in a red-and-white suit with gifts that will thin our wallets.

Some readers argued that gift-giving and surprising children with games and toys is in the spirit of Jesus. Fine - as long as the whole thing doesn't get out of hand and the meaning of the season is lost.

I'm not against gifts. But our first efforts - year-round, but especially at this special time of year - should be to help feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and improve our communities and neighborhoods.

Take a look at what's going on in Voorhees, where some people are trying to create a home for troubled, though not necessarily violent or criminal, preteens.

A small house on Harvard Drive is slated to serve a half-dozen children in need of a hug and a home. The supervised group home is expected to open in approximately a month, right around the Christmas holiday. Because of their circumstances, these children have been chased out of neighborhoods in and around Cherry Hill. Anger, apparently, awaits them even before their next move.

Did neighbors get together to help in the spirit of Christmas? No: Some have banded together with picket signs, deploring the plan to make a home for the children. Everyone acknowledges the kids need a home - just don't put it next door to us.

You're hearing all sorts of excuses to keep the teens out. "What about our property values?" is a beauty. Few in the area have spoken about human values. Somehow, I'd expect more from people fortunate enough to have strong families, lucky enough to have an opportunity to assist others in need.

"We obviously are united in the fact that this location is not right for those kids and for our kids," said one parent in the Lake Villa Estates subdivision. Evidently, some residents are afraid and protective when it comes to outsiders. But weren't they themselves outsiders before they moved in?

I speak from first-hand experience. I lived for years in an area where some troubled youth needed help. Indeed, my family and I took a few of them in and kept them afloat until their personal family dilemmas could be resolved. We remain in touch with some of them even today.

I have seen many children prosper as a result of neighborhood assistance and acceptance. Over the years, in fact, children in need caused few problems while in need and few problems later. Many of these youngsters reached adulthood without further problems and today they have families of their own.

Some Voorhees residents say they resent the idea because they were not notified concerning the group home. But there are other feelings at work here, and not all of them are healthy or good.

For too many, Christmas is about giving expensive computers, jewelry, clothing, cameras, kitchen appliances and electronic gadgets - the same loot people pile up for themselves all year. If this season is to have any significance, why not make part of it helping others in need? One of my favorite observations states that a stranger is only someone I haven't met yet. We need more of that spirit about now.

I keep hoping that more of us will reach beyond the immediacy of our own lives and families to assist others. Most of what I see is disappointing.

The thing going on in Voorhees and other communities reveals our insensitivity and, yes, selfishness - a precise template for why improvement in our society arrives so slowly, if at all.