Goodfellows: Disabled mom hoping to have gifts under tree

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The tree has been up for weeks, the lights restrung, the ornaments hung with care by two young believers.

If only the scene beneath that tree could be as perfect come Christmas morning.

Anamarie Henderson fears her children are preparing for a visit from Santa that may not happen.

"I can provide them with lots of love, but little else this holiday,'' she said of daughter Mauriana Gardner, 6, and son Maurio Gardner, 5.

Ms. Henderson is a single mom and a paraplegic; she cannot move her body from the breastbone down. She uses a wheelchair to navigate the basement, which has been retooled into a handicapped-friendly apartment in her mother's rural home in Salem, near the village of Export.

She is 29 years old.

The tree she and her children so lovingly decorated "the day after Halloween, we couldn't wait," is next to her bed. "It's the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing at night,'' she said, calling it a "quite a holiday motivator."

Ms. Henderson's life in a wheelchair began a little more than two years ago, after she was shot in the back and side by her former boyfriend following an argument. A Westmoreland County jury, in August 2012, found Lawrence Darnell Redman of Hempfield guilty of attempted murder and he is serving 20 to 40 years in the State Correctional Institution in Forest County.

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"One has to learn to deal with life's choices, life's circumstances," Ms. Henderson said of that time. "Now my priority is adapting to life on wheels and making a good life for my kids."

That this Christmas is lean is best illustrated by looking closely at the family's holiday tree. It's skinny and artificial with pre-lit branches that no longer light. But each bulb has been carefully unscrewed and replaced by new white twinkle lights.

"It took hours of meticulous work," Ms. Henderson noted, "but was cheaper than buying new."

The ornaments are an eclectic assortment that reflects a young family's ties to pop culture.

"There are M&M candy character bulbs for me, 'Angry Birds' for my son and 'Hello Kitty' for my daughter,'' she said.

Ms. Henderson is on Social Security disability and other government aid and fears it will be some time until -- "if ever" -- she can be trained to return to the workforce. Her mother Theresa Mele lives upstairs and supervises the blended household, but Ms. Henderson is able to make meals and help with the kids' baths and other simple chores. She is learning to drive her mother's van, which has been refitted with special hand controls. A graduate of Greensburg Salem High School -- her children attend school in that district -- she mostly worked as a waitress before her injuries.

Still, there is that tree and an indomitable spirit -- and, perhaps, a little magic to come from some Goodfellows this season.

The family is among thousands who are counting on the generosity of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette readers to brighten their Christmases through donations to the Goodfellows Fund. The goal of the fund, which started in 1947, is to make sure that every child has a toy under the tree on Christmas morning. Donations support the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program, which will distribute thousands of toys to needy children this season, and the Salvation Army's Treasures for Children program. Each year some $100,000 worth of new toys are given to more than 30,000 youngsters.

The family also has advocates on the staff of A Giving Heart, a community center and homeless shelter in the city. The nonprofit's goal, said director Kristee Cammack, is to keep families united and help them work through crises.

Giving Heart is coordinating one of many Goodfellows/Toys for Tots distributions. This one will be from 2 to 5 p.m. Dec. 15 at Giving Heart headquarters in Allentown. More than 200 youngsters are registered and "all will get a gift," Ms. Cammack promised.

Ms. Henderson is hoping "there will be something there that can be repurposed for Christmas morning ... my kids remain believers."

And, "maybe the kids won't like this," their practical mom added, "but Santa would be wise to bring some warm winter clothes, too," size 8 for Mauriana and size 6 for Maurio.

Their love of learning is illustrated by the large mirror leaning on a wall in their apartment that serves as a whiteboard and is filled with magnetic ABCs and words spelled out in marker.

"They love to play school and I love watching them learn," Ms. Henderson said.

She also loves playing and the make-believe that ''typical" moms enjoy.

During last week's snowfall, she had a friend lift her from the wheelchair and place her in the snow, where she flapped her arms to make wing imprints -- to the roaring delight of her kids.

The family plans to spend Christmas much as it did for Thanksgiving: Mrs. Mele will prepare a small turkey with the fixings served to her daughter and grandchildren and a smattering of friends gathered around the kitchen table.

And maybe, just maybe, there will be a mountain of used wrapping paper beneath that tree.

You can make a tax deductible donation to Goodfellows by using the coupon on this page, or online by visiting Every donation will be acknowledged in the newspaper.

How to get toys

The Toys for Tots program will hold open houses this month to distribute toys to parents and guardians of needy children.

They will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 13 and 14 at Guardian Storage Solutions, 2839 Liberty Ave., Strip District.

Parents and guardians are required to bring photo ID for themselves, a birth certificate for each child (children up to age 12 are eligible) and proof of need: an EBT card, Access card or SNAP card.

Those wishing to volunteer can visit the Toys for Tots website listed above or

Suburban editor Virginia Kopas Joe: or 412-263-1414.

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