Princeton Times

News

December 23, 2011

5 pennies and a coat: Straley Avenue child inspires holiday hope with her generosity

PRINCETON — Five pennies and a gently worn coat were all Iyanna Burke could spare, when a neighbor she’d never met knocked on her door and asked for help.

These small gifts were all it took to restore Elsie Mitchem’s faith in people and remind a whole network of friends about the innocent generosity of a child’s pure heart.

This unique Christmas story began in the heart of Valley View Adventist Church’s Campaign for Community, an annual fund drive designed to send church members door to door, collecting donations to fund smoking cessation clinics, healthful-cooking classes, elder care, disaster response and more.

“Every bit of what we raise stays in this community, and we can even use the money to help people in need make it through difficult times,” Mitchem explained Wednesday. “We can’t make any big payments or anything, but we can help with the electricity bill or the grocery bill.”

The Campaign for Christmas drive spans the holiday season, from Thanksgiving until Christmas, and it calls on members of the Valley View Adventist Church to seek help for their neighborhoods from the same communities that will ultimately receive the assistance.

“We ask friends and neighbors if they’d like to give a donation for friends and neighbors less fortunate,” Mitchem said.

So, on a very special day recently, Mitchem and her daughter were fulfilling their mission, conducting a door-to-door drive on Straley Avenue. That was when Mitchem — dressed in her trademark apron that reads “People Helping People” —  knocked on a door where three children ranging from 10 to 16 years old were home at the time.

When they appeared at the door, Mitchem explained why she had knocked on their door, not truly expecting the children to be in a position to help her cause.

“This little girl, sweet as she could be, said, ‘I can. I can find you something,’” Mitchem said.

Iyanna briefly disappeared into the home, only to return momentarily with five pennies. With her giving spirit shining bright, Iyanna apologized for the meager nature of her donation.

Times haven’t been exactly easy for her family lately, but she was willing to give everything she could spare. The warm gesture touched Mitchem and left the lady used to having doors closed in her face on the brink of tears.

“I said, ‘Sweetheart, that’s all right. It doesn’t matter how much you give, as long as your heart is right when you give it,’” Mitchem said.

Just as she was assuring Iyanna that everything she had was plenty, the little girl disappeared again, announcing that she had one more thing she could contribute.

This time, she returned to the door with a lightweight jacket, declaring that she could give a coat for someone who might go cold this Christmas season.

Stunned, Mitchem at first told Iyanna that she could not possibly take a coat the little girl might need, but at the child’s insistence, she relented and pledged that she would put the coat in the hands of someone who truly needed it and would cherish it accordingly.

As she shared the story with her daughter, Mitchem said the two women succumbed to the tears that had threatened previously, unaccustomed to Iyanna’s complete willingness to give when she had little to share.

“That little girl gave everything she could find in that house to donate,” Mitchem explained.

These days, most people are less than welcoming to someone soliciting door-to-door for an unfamiliar cause. Most people are tolerant, but it’s easy for Mitchem to get discouraged when she constantly meets road blocks and irritation amid donation requests.

Iyanna’s complete contribution reminded her, “You have more of the nice people, who make up the difference for it … It just gave me a high to keep on doing this … She was so sincere, and she just wanted to share.”

Not long afterward, Mitchem continued the Campaign for Community mission, still inside the warm glow of Iyanna’s generosity. She shared the story with a friend of hers, who happened to the be the librarian at the First Christian Church on Straley Avenue.

When she described the home where she had met Iyanna and her two brothers, Judy Raines realized that she knew the family who starred in the story; the children recently began attending her church, and she, too, had noticed Iyanna’s sweet spirit and her determination to make her small part of the world a better place.

As the two ladies talked, Raines pledged that she would try to round up some holiday help for Iyanna and her family, to reward her embodiment of the Christmas hope, and Mitchem decided she would ask Campaign for Community for a modest allotment as well.

After all, she reasoned, if Iyanna’s family could use some help this holiday season, it was only fair that the fund assist the little girl who was willing to give all she had to help others.

Raines, known to Iyanna as “Miss Judy,” contacted her mother, Sandra Burke, who to that point had no idea of the entire experience. She had been working the day that Mitchem met her daughter.

“It made me cry,” Burke said. “It made me feel like I’m doing something right.”

When she asked her daughter about the incident, Iyanna explained it just the way Mitchem described.

“She said, ‘Mama, I could only find five pennies, and I hope that you don’t mind that I gave them one of my jackets,’” Burke said. “She’s my sweetheart.”

Although Burke was touched by her daughter’s caring contribution to Mitchem’s efforts, she wasn’t entirely surprised that Iyanna offered everything she could.

“We call Iyanna a little mama. She’s younger than her closest brother, but she always makes sure he has everything he needs, and she looks after everybody,” Burke said.

The children chose to start attending First Christian Church on their own recently. Burke can’t attend herself, because her job as a demonstrator and sampler at the Sam’s Club in Bluefield, Va., determines how most of her weekend hours are spent, but she’s proud that her children have chosen to attend.

“It has just amazed me how everything fell into place,” she said.

Wednesday, Burke had to be in Charleston, but she called and gave Raines permission to take Iyanna on a small shopping spree just ahead of the holiday season.

She let the little girl share some of her purchases, as she explained she bought pajamas, slippers and a couple of games, but she also let her keep some of her purchases to herself.

“You know, if she chose to buy her brothers a present for Christmas, or something, I didn’t want to make her show them to me and ruin the surprise for them,” Burke explained.

This weekend, Burke knows her family’s Christmas won’t be big or extravagant, but thanks to Iyanna’s kind gesture and the hope it gave two church families, everyone she touched will greet it with a brighter outlook and a blessing full of a child’s simple joy.

“She has a really big heart,” Burke said.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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