Michelle DiGiacomo recently entered a Chicago grocery store and changed a strangers life. She was in the checkout line and the bagger was a 16 year old girl.

Michelle had noticed the girl at the store before. "She seemed so sweet and kind," Michelle says, "She has bright eyes, a pretty face, and she always smiles." But the first thing anyone observes about this girl is this: She has severely prominent buck teeth.

Michelle, 40, approached the store manager and learned that the girl's family can't afford dental surgery. And so she lives with a defect that most children-those whose families have insurance or can afford the expense-have corrected.

Michelle came home that day and faxed a letter to four dentists listed in the American Dental Association Web site. She told them about the girl-who wants me to call her "Maria"-and asked them to donate their services.

"I grew up an overweight child, and I know children can be cruel" Michelle wrote in her letter to the dentists. "I've also watched adults look at Maria's teeth, and unintentionally hurt her with their eyes. It's a look of pity or disbelief. I can almost hear them thinking; She has such a pretty face! Someone once asked me what my favorite body part was. I said, "my smile because it never gains weight." A smile has always been important to me. It got me through days when I felt ugly in every other way."

And so Michelle asked these dentist's to improve Maria's smile.

Two of the four volunteered to help. Michelle arranged for years of orthodontics and oral surgery (including breaking and resetting Maria's jaw) that might otherwise cost $30,000. (These generous dentists asked not to be identified)

Maria knew "a customer" was arranging to help her and was desperate to meet this person. Though Michelle wanted to remain anonymous, she finally introduced herself to Maria, and they hugged and cried.

I first heard from Michelle before she found an oral surgeon to operate for free. She hoped I'd ask readers to contribute to Maria's expenses. When free dental care came through, I asked if I could still write about Michelle and Maria. They agreed. "Maybe we can inspire other people to make a difference in someone's life," Michelle says.

Maria is a very centered young lady. She tells her story without anger or self pity. As a girl, she visited a dentist who explained that her overbite would need surgery and braces. Her parents had no insurance..."I wasn't upset," she says, "I didn't pressure my parents, I said to myself, "I can stay like this."

She weathered the taunts of classmates. "They'd call me 'Beaver'. They'd leave toothbrushes on my desk. I'd walk in the room, and they'd start laughing. I'd just walk away. I accepted the way I am because God made me like this. So let it be. There's a reason, and I don't know what it is yet."

"Kids were rough," Maria's, mom says, "It hurt me because it was hurting her. I'd tell her all the time, You'll be a better, stronger person because of this."

Children ask Maria, "Why do you smile all the time?" She replies, "I have no reason not to be happy."

Not wanting to make her parents feel guilty, Maria promised herself that she'd one day become a lawyer and pay for the dental work on her own. When she learned about Michelle's kindness, she says, "I cried. I thought, "Wow, there actually are nice people out there."

Maria's braces are on, and though the dental work could take four years, she's very patient and grateful. "no matter what happens," she says, "I'm going to keep smiling."

Guardian Angel cares for kids who cry on the inside


"Who will cry for the little boy?
A good boy he tried to be
Who will cry for the little boy
Who cries inside of me?"
--Antwone Quenton Fisher

There's a little girl crying inside Michelle DiGiacomo. And while bad childhood memories may darken the hearts of some, DiGiacomo peeled back the pain to let her heart shine.

"I've never seen a person like her before," said Carl. L. Lawson Sr., principal of Florence B. Price Elementary School on the South Side. "She gives from her heart. Every time she comes here, she asks, 'What can I do?' "

Indeed, DiGiacomo is emerging as the guardian angel of Chicago Public School students. The founder of Direct Effect Charities, DiGiacomo has given Christmas gifts to thousands of kids through her "Letters to Santa" program. She also developed a rewards program as a way of encouraging students to improve their academics.

"These were quality gifts," Lawson said. "She gave bikes to the two top kids. But she didn't want to leave any kid behind, so she went out and bought books for all the students. The kind of drive she has is amazing."

I contacted DiGiacomo a couple of weeks ago after receiving an e-mail in which she castigated the media for failing to let the public know how they can help children.

When you consider how she came to start up a charitable organization that is dedicated to improving the quality of life for impoverished public school students, DiGiacomo is quite a story herself.

"I think it comes from my childhood. Although I had things, I wasn't raised with a lot of self-esteem. I relate to these children on that level. Even though we grew up in different lifestyles, I still was emotionally abused. I have compassion because I think I have suffered a lot in my lifetime," she said.

About 10 years ago, DiGiacomo lived in a North Side apartment building and noticed that one of the tenants, an elderly woman, lived alone, ate her meals alone and basically had to fend for herself.

"She pretty much lived like a pauper," DiGiacomo said. "I started helping her out when she needed stuff."

When the climb to the third floor became too much for the elderly woman, she moved to a retirement home.

"She asked me if I could look at some papers. I took a look, and they were all stock reports," DiGiacomo said. "She wanted to leave the money to me, but I wasn't comfortable with that. I suggested she start a charitable foundation for the schools since she used to teach at a Chicago Public School."

That same year, the woman broke her hip and had a stroke. DiGiacomo moved the elderly woman to her home. The woman's money went into a trust to benefit three of her relatives, also elderly. When they pass away, the money will go into the charitable foundation.

DiGiacomo and her husband started Direct Effect Charities last year. "We didn't get any donations," she said. "We did the whole Santa letter program--about 12,000 kids--and paid for it ourselves."

While organizing the Santa letter program, DiGiacomo said, she discovered some Chicago students came to school on a regular basis without socks and underwear.

"It is hard to come up with words. Imagine your child going to school with no socks or underwear," she said. "I know from my experience that this does exist and it is a fact of many children's lives."

Donald Schmitt, principal at Martin A. Ryerson Elementary School in Lawndale, said some students could definitely use the clothing. "There are parents who are really scraping by, so they just don't have it," Schmitt said. "A lot of schools go out of their way to buy them clothing. If you could see the eyes of kids who have no parents light up when they see a new set of clothing, it makes your day."

Through Direct Effects Charities, DiGiacomo has started the Chicago Kids' Closet, now housed in the old Chicago Public School warehouse at 47th and St. Louis. Throughout the year, she will collect donations of socks and underwear that will be distributed to the schools.

"This is a very real need that exists out there," she said. "It is something people don't think about." DiGiacomo didn't want to talk about why some kids in Chicago don't have these basic essentials. As far as she's concerned, it doesn't matter who's at fault. When kids suffer this kind of neglect, it robs them of their dignity and self-esteem. Her mission is to care about the kids who cry inside.

"People will help if they know there is a need."

Those interested in helping DiGiacomo make a difference may reach her at (312) 296-5311, or visit

Building Self Esteem From the Inside Out...Starting with Underwear

by Matthew Alderton, Conscious Choice, December 2003

Michelle DiGiacomo was in a meeting with school administrators at an inner-city school last Christmas when she learned that, instead of toys, some children were asking Santa for underwear. "It's something I never thought about," says DiGiacomo, who has a 5-year-old daughter. "I was just freaked out."

She learned that teachers were going out and spending their own salaries on underwear and socks for young students who were coming to school without these clothing essentials. "I thought of my own daughter. What if I didn't have that for her? It's a sick feeling."

As a result of this shock, DiGiacomo, 43, started the Kid's Closet. It's part of a nonprofit organization she founded last year called Direct Effect Charities that focuses on improving the lives of impoverished kids in Chicago's public schools. She runs the charity, a one-woman show, from her home office. "The idea behind Direct Effect is to directly affect people," DiGiacomo says. "I wanted people to know when they supported our charity they were supporting a child directly."

Clothes for the Kid's Closet are housed at a Chicago Public Schools warehouse. The schools notify students -- kindergarteners through eighth graders -- that socks and underwear are available to them and, if they have a need, they are encouraged to go to their teachers or school counselors. Teachers collect the child's sizes and Direct Effect supplies them with their order. Most importantly, all of this is done in a confidential manner to support the pride and dignity of the kids.

"If a kid is asking for underwear, they need it," DiGiacomo says. As she can tell you, a new pair of underwear covers a lot more than skin. From an abusive home herself, she understands the emotional impact neglect can have on a child. "It shatters their self-esteem," she laments. A big part of the Kid's Closet, and everything Direct Effect does, is helping children build a positive self-image by teaching them to make a difference in the world around them.

"Children are preciously innocent. They don't see poverty," DiGiacomo says. "They need to know the realities of this world and be taught they can do something to make a difference. Rather than make them think poverty does not exist, we need to teach them what they can do to help."

And if you teach by example, she urges, they will learn. DiGiacomo recently received a thank you letter from a little girl who said she loves what Direct Effect does and wants to do the same thing when she grows up. "I'm betting she will," DiGiacomo says. "I believe in her. And I always say there's magic in believing."

Parenting resolution treats abuse, discipline alike


Is it ever appropriate to hit our children?

Before you answer, remember what we are actually trying to teach our children when we give them a spanking, or as it was called when I was growing up, a "whupping." We are trying to teach them that their behavior is so unacceptable they have to be punished.

Unfortunately for me, my parents didn't believe in time-outs.

When we were disobedient or rude; when we had to have the last word; if we stole; if we clowned in school; if we rolled our eyes in the direction of my mother or father, we got a whupping.

I grew up believing white people gave their children time-outs. White children could fall out in a grocery store, screaming and kicking because they couldn't have something, and when they got home, they got a time-out, I thought. In other words, while black kids were getting beatings, white kids were getting a talking-to.

Of course, I only believed that because I was watching too much "Leave It to Beaver." Some white kids were getting spankings, and some were being abused, just like black kids.

Still, the perception that corporal punishment is a part of black culture persists. And for many parents, hitting a child -- no matter how it is done and why -- is seen as child abuse. We're to the point where children boldly threaten to call the Department of Children and Family Services if they even think they are going to get a whupping.

Except for extreme cases, blacks are more likely to see whuppings as a necessary disciplinary tool, and understand that there's a difference between corporal punishment and child abuse.

Death of Hill causes conflict

None of us is confused by what happened to Willa Hill, an 11-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her father after she admitted stealing $2 from her step-sister. The father, Charles Hill, is accused of beating the girl with a TV cable and buckle-end of a belt for as long as two hours.

There was a lot going on in this family, and Willa seemed to have gotten the brunt of it.

Hill and the girl's mother, Kenya Waterford, were estranged. Waterford left Willa and her two sisters with Hill earlier this year, and there were a total of seven children in the household. It is clear to me that the alleged beating had nothing to do with trying to teach Hill a lesson. Tragically, shamefully, this young girl was used as a whipping-post by someone who was filled with anger.

That's why I'm conflicted by the "Positive Parenting Resolution'' that was passed by the Chicago City Council last week. Certainly, there are better ways to discipline children than striking them, but there is a difference between child abuse and corporal punishment.

Unfortunately, this resolution treats them as if they are one and the same.

Michelle DiGiacomo, the author of the resolution, is the executive director of Direct Effect Charities, a not-for-profit group that runs the "Letters to Santa" and "Chicago Kid's Closet," programs in Chicago Public Schools. Last year, while working in one of the schools, DiGiacomo ran across an 11-year-old foster child who was being beaten by a foster parent.

"He had been beaten severely, but when I asked him why he had not talked to a social worker, he told me he had,'' DiGiacomo said.

Worker didn't report beatings

DiGiacomo claims to be a victim of child abuse and molestation, and was tearful when she recounted how she intervened on the boy's behalf. After she reported the incident to CPS, the boy was put into protective custody. She then brought together some of the teachers and the social worker who failed to report the beatings.

"I provided lunch. I attempted to show a movie and they all chit-chatted,'' DiGiacomo said. "Before she left, the social worker who had let him down told me I'd better get used to whippings because it's a cultural thing. She told me her mama whipped her, and she whipped her kids, and that's the way it is.''

The parenting resolution promotes non-violent, peaceful forms of discipline, and calls on city departments and agencies to "distribute positive, non-violent parenting literature in schools, churches, hospitals and community organizations.''

"It's more symbolic and more a start to the city opening itself up to the fact that this is happening," DiGiacomo told me. "I've put a program in place called 'Stop the Violence,' that has been approved by CPS, and I'm working to put it in each school.''

Meanwhile, the 14-year-old foster child that DiGiacomo rescued is now living in another foster home.

His new foster mother, Monique Smith (who is also a social worker), says she wouldn't hit him because it is against department rules. She has raised four boys and one daughter.

"I think there are times when spanking is appropriate, but there is also an over-reliance on physical discipline, especially in the black community,'' Smith said.

I would agree. Many of us are operating under too much emotional stress to use a rod on a child.

Warren High's Letters program brings cheer to Chicago school

BY BETH KRAMER December 2008

GURNEE -- Warren High School students are playing Santa to about 1,400 needy children at a Chicago public school. Answering the letters the children have written to Santa, Warren students purchase and wrap the gifts.

"We act like little elves," said Andrea Rusk, Student Council advisor at O'Plaine.

Student Council members spearhead the Letters to Santa project at the O'Plaine campus and National Honor Society members handle it at the Almond campus. Partnered with Direct Effect Charities, Warren answers all the letters collected from Lloyd Elementary School in Chicago, which is a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school.

"These are the kids who wouldn't get anything otherwise. They're really cute," Rusk said. "The (Warren) kids put a lot into organizing this. We make sure every single kid gets what they want. It takes a lot of time and effort."

While many students elect to be responsible for answering one or two letters, some classes, like Carolyn Thomas' English class, buy gifts for multiple letters at once. Her class raised enough money to buy gifts for about 18 kids, Thomas estimated. Her class found a sponsor, Koenig and Strey in Libertyville, who matched their funds dollar for dollar.

"This is just a great (charity). I've always done it personally and started doing it with my classes," Thomas said.

The spending limit for each letter is $25. Many of the children ask for school supplies or clothing. All the gifts will be loaded into trucks and sent to Lloyd Elementary on Dec. 15.

Thomas' class got a leg up on the project by having a gift wrapping party Tuesday afternoon.

Avani Patel, 14, wrapped gifts for a girl who asked for clothes and a doll. She loaded the wrapped presents into a backpack for the girl.

"We thought it would be good (to do) for a good cause. The kids don't have much," Patel said.

Thomas said that her class participation in the Letters to Santa effort gets a little bigger every year. "I just think how awesome these students are. It just shows what great things kids can do," Thomas said.

Warren has been participating in the Letters to Santa program for about five years. The program is in its eighth year, said Direct Effect Charities Executive Director Michelle DiGiacomo.

Individuals, families, corporations and law offices answered about 10,000 letters this year, she said. While some other high schools do answer letters, she said Warren handles the most letters. They took about 150 letters the first year they participated and then answered over 800 another year. It kept escalating until DiGiacomo arranged for Warren to work with Lloyd Elementary directly.

"Can you imagine if I had 25 high schools doing 500 letters? If I could get the word out there and get enough schools to participate, oh my god, I could do every school that needs this program. I would love to have 10 or 20 more Warren Townships -- that would be a dream come true," DiGiacomo said.