Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
Or in this case: Yes, Malik, someone very high up cares about your safety: the president of the United States.
“I’m like OMG! It’s a letter from Obama, from the president,” 13-year-old Malik Bryant said Sunday, as he held the signed letter, on cream-colored White House parchment paper, that he had just opened.
Malik, who lives in the impoverished, high-crime Englewood neighborhood on the South Side with his mother and two sisters, had only one wish this year when he participated in a local charity’s annual Letters to Santa program.
It wasn’t electronics, nor clothes, nor games.
“All I ask for is for safety. I just wanna be safe,” Malik wrote earlier this month.
Malik was one of about 8,500 Chicago Public Schools students who wrote letters to Santa in the program run by DirectEffect Charities, a 13-year-old Chicago nonprofit.
His and other letters from students at 12 schools this year were distributed to big-hearted folks across the city and suburbs who fulfilled the wishes — much the same as similar programs run by organizations across the city, including the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
“When I pulled this one letter from a seventh-grade class at an Englewood elementary school, I couldn’t stop reading it,” said Michelle DiGiacomo, CEO of DirectEffect. “All this kid was asking for was safety. I was floored.”
During more than a decade of running Letters to Santa, DiGiacomo has seen her share of daunting requests from children, but none like this.
“I didn’t know what to do with it. Malik’s teacher suggested we get him winter wear and some school supplies. So I sent off his letter to one of our Santas. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said.
“Then it hit me. Someone bigger than Santa needed to see this letter. I thought the president of the United States needed to see it,” DiGiacomo said.
DiGiacomo, of the North Side, reached out to her congressman, U.S. Rep. Michael Quigley. Quigley, who was just as moved by the child’s letter, agreed to forward it to the White House.
In his letter, Malik wrote, “Dear Santa: I would like to ask you sum[thing] but first Imma tell you about me. Im a black African American … My favorite subject is math. I have 2 siblings living with me and Im the only boy on my Moms side of my family. But anyway all I ask for is for safety. I just wanna be safe.”
DiGiacomo also shared the letter in DirectEffect’s December newsletter.
That’s where Spencer Tweedy saw it. His father, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and mother, Susan Miller Tweedy, are longtime supporters of DiGiacomo’s work on behalf of schoolchildren.
Moved by the boy’s words, Spencer Tweedy tweeted on Dec. 10: “Every year, my friend Michelle does a Letters to Santa drive. This is a real letter from a kid in Chicago,” and posted the letter.
Someone picked up his tweet and posted the letter on Tumblr. By Christmas, it had been shared on Twitter 5,795 times and favorited 4,307 times. On Tumblr, it had been reblogged and favorited a total of 69,272 times.
In the meantime, deciding winter wear didn’t begin to measure up to Malik’s Christmas wish, DiGiacomo reached out to the boy’s mother to seek suggestions on what else she could get for him.
Malik’s mom said whatever DiGiacomo decided, it had to be something Malik could entertain himself with indoors.
“Malik doesn’t really go outside. He has to hear from me all the time telling him he can’t stay out too long because it’s too dangerous,” his 35-year-old mother, who asked not to be identified, told the Sun-Times.
“Sometimes he wants to go over to my sister’s house nearby, to hang out with his cousins, but he can’t because he has to cross gang lines and walk past all these gang members on some of those blocks. And all he ever hears on the news about our neighborhood is shootings, gangs and violence. Malik knows he’s not safe,” she said.
Responding to outreach by DiGiacomo, donors came up with Christmas presents — a new computer and Wii game for Malik — and DiGiacomo and her teen daughter delivered them to the family on Christmas Day.
Now that might have been the end of Malik’s letter to Santa.
But on Saturday evening, he received one last Christmas present via certified mail.
It was a letter from the White House — dated Dec. 22, addressed to Mr. Malik Bryant — signed by President Barack Obama.
In the post-Christmas hustle and bustle, Malik didn’t get to open the letter until Sunday.
“I want to offer you a few words of encouragement,” the president wrote to the boy.
“Each day, I strive to ensure communities like yours are safe places to dream, discover, and grow. Please know your security is a priority for me in everything I do as President. If you dare to be bold and creative, work hard every day, and care for others, I’m confident you can achieve anything you imagine . . . and I will be rooting for you.”
Malik was awestruck as he held the letter. So was his mother.
“I’m just overwhelmed,” his mother said. “I still can’t believe it. How fantastic that out of all the problems he has in the world, the president took the time out to write a letter concerning about my son. I mean wow, what a Christmas.”
As for Malik — who has seen the dead body of a teen acquaintance lying in the street after a gang shooting; who frequently hears gunshots in his neighborhood; and too often witnesses “jump-ons” — a mob of gang members beating down one person — he still doesn’t feel safe. But he is grateful that the president took time to write to him.
“I barely can’t even go outside anymore, can’t ride my bike, can’t play ball, can’t go play with my cousins, because you have to watch your back every 30 seconds,” said Malik, who hopes to go to college, play basketball and be drafted, and if not, become a teacher.
“I know the president’s letter isn’t going to like solve the safety reasons out here, and it’s still going to be dangerous, but I’m excited the president of the United States wrote to me, and I can’t wait to show it off.”