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Light One Candle gives us all the chance to spread holiday cheer

Today marks the kickoff of the Mail Tribune's annual holiday giving series "Light One Candle." Like every year for the past dozen years, this series will feature 15 stories offering readers an opportunity to help meet the needs of local individuals and families during this ho-ho-holiday season.

On Christmas Day, we'll run the wrap-up and see how we did in the giving department. Will you be naughty? Or nice?

Each year around the end of November, calls and letters from private individuals begin pouring in. These folks hope to nominate someone they personally know and believe to be a perfect candidate for a Candle story. A special friend. A co-worker. Sometimes even themselves.

It's hard hearing the disappointment in their voices when I say that's simply not possible. So I thought I'd use this column to explain some of the rules and regulations in hopes of saving us all some heartache.

All the Candle candidates are pre-screened and submitted by members of our local social services agencies and nonprofit organizations. Not by me. Not by the Mail Tribune. And all donations go directly to those agencies/entities. Not to the Mail Tribune. Not to me. I'm just the annual storyteller.

If you have a friend in need, please call the United Way at 773-5339. These folks are great at linking other folks up with the proper agency that can offer assistance.

As for the rest of us mortals, as heartrending as reading some of these stories can be, the good news is we can do something to make their lives better in this moment.

Apart from the initial brave family feature in the kickoff of the series, the identities of the following candidates remain anonymous. Their stories — which inevitably include sexually abused children, mentally and emotionally challenged teens, and families stricken by devastating illnesses — come via the caseworkers and agents, offered with the hope help will follow from our always generous community.

These tough economic times are adding even more challenges to families who may have been struggling for years. This year's first story tells the tale of Sabena and Stephen Moriarty and their blended family full of his-hers-and-ours kids. Medical expenses and other budget-busting issues collided with major income loss after the family's soldier-father was deployed to Iraq this summer. Cascading financial troubles pushed them to the brink of homelessness.

The Moriartys certainly never expected to be featured in the Light One Candle series. They are accustomed to being on the other end of this series.

"We used to be the ones giving to others," Sabena said.

But in spite of their current struggles, aren't they still?

Stephan Moriarty is serving our country in Iraq. Sabena is a veteran. They are raising their children to be responsible members of their community. Sabena's oldest daughter, Alexandra, is a student at Ashland High School. The 17-year-old has a job at a local pizza joint, and she recently completed 40 hours of training necessary to become a volunteer at Dunn House. Alexandra can't wait to help with the babies at the rescue shelter. She knows it is far better to light one candle than curse the darkness when life hands you a lump of coal.

One of my favorite things about this series is it brings gifts to people who aren't featured in a newspaper story. Sabena has asked for a Christmas tree. I have no doubt there will be a forest of trees offered to this loving family. Whichever one they get, my heart's cockles are warmed knowing that the rest of the trees will go to people who weren't "lucky" enough to be featured in Light One Candle. But whose story, no doubt, is equally compelling.

Finally, for those few Grinches who call each year (and thankfully only a few do) eager to share their judgments/condemnation for our Candle candidates, I'd like to offer this personal holiday request. Please save your quarter — and your breath. You won't convince this elf that helping is wrong. How about plopping that coin into the Hope Chest at United Way? Then redirect any Bah Humbug energy into volunteerism like Alexandra Moriarty.

Let's all make Santa proud.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.