13- year-old Malik Bryant asked Santa for safety. Tonight he’ll sit with Michelle Obama at the State of the Union –

As President Barack Obama gives the State of
the Union address tonight, 13-year-old Malik
Bryant will watch him as one of the First Lady’s
guests ( http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/01/19/meet-first-ladys-guests-state-union ) . Malik is a Chicago school boy
who made headlines around the world when he
sent out a letter to Santa asking for one simple
thing, “All I ask for is safety. I just wanna be
safe.”

Back home in Chicago, Michelle DiGiacomo, the
person who first read Malik’s letter and set into
motion his improbable journey to the State of
the Union address, is working hard to fulfill
Malik’s wish. DiGiacomo runs Direct Effect (http://directeffectcharities.org/ ) , a non-profit
that oversees an annual Letters to Santa
program which works with Chicago’s poorest
public schools. She is worried that Malik’s new
fame might attract unwelcome attention in his
tough Engleside neighborhood. “We have to find
his family a home in a safe neighborhood,” she
says. “This can change Malik’s life if it doesn’t
kill him first.”

DiGiacomo, a 54-year-old widowed mother of
two, is an unlikely head for a charitable
organization that helps thousands of children in
Chicago every year. Her only source of income
are her disability checks. She lives in a rented
apartment. “You would think I was a bag lady,”
she says, talking about how she hasn’t shopped
for clothes for herself in years. She suffers from
multiple medical ailments and hit the headlines
in 2012 when she was arrested for receiving a shipment of medical marijuana from
California. Last week, she received a pardon
from outgoing Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.
What she does have is the ability to get
thousands of volunteers to donate generously to
children in need. In 2013, DiGiacomo ensured
gifts for over 10,000 children through Direct
Effect’s Letters to Santa program, even though
she was bedridden. Last December, Direct Effect
organized gifts to over 8,500 Chicago school
children. Last December, there were so many
donations that Direct Effect, named because it is
designed to directly impact children, was also
able to help not just children but entire families
in need.

The program, originally started by former
reporter Jeff Zaslow (reporter and co-author of
“The Last Lecture”), has helped thousands of
school children receive at least one gift for
Christmas since DiGiacomo and her late
husband took over 13 years ago. Direct Effect
has now gone on to add a Build a Backpack
program in the summer to provide school
supplies. The Chicago Public School gave the
charity space to collect socks and underwear for
public school children in need.
DiGiacomo, who works alone, has read hundreds
of those letters over the years. “Kids have
written about sexual abuse, physical abuse,”
she says, noting that she immediately notifies
the school authorities when she sees something
alarming. Other times, there are heartbreaking
letters asking for food or clothing. The letters are
stark images of lives lived on the edge.
The letters are sent to volunteers who try to
fulfill the wishes, or come close. Direct Effects
now has schools adopting an entire school for
the letters campaign, law firms volunteering to
take on bunches of letters, families asking for a
few letters to fulfill each year. “Once you answer
a letter to Santa, you cannot stop,” says
DiGiacomo. “It touches people’s hearts.”

Malik’s school was in the Letters to Santa
program for the first time this year. DiGiacomo
read every single letter from the new school,
checking as she often does to make sure that the children write a sentence
about themselves, and not just present the
donor with a wishlist.

She says Malik’s letter stayed with her. “I
wanted the President to read the letter – not so
much to put the focus on Malik, but to focus on
all the children on Englewood who feel this way,”

she said. “I wanted him to be aware that there
are so many children who live in fear.”
The letter reached the White House through an
unlikely cast of characters. Ten years ago,
Susan Miller Tweedy, wife of Grammy winning
Wilco musician Jeff Tweedy, reached to
DiGiacomo to support her charity. The Tweedys
have been steadfast supporters of Direct Effect
ever since. Last December, the couple’s son,
Spencer Tweedy, an upcoming musician,
tweeted about Malik’s letter. The tweet went
viral. At the same time, DiGiacomo reached out
to Mike Quigley, her Congressman, for his help in
getting the letter to the White House.

When President Obama responded, the wave of
media attention took Malik, his family and
DiGiacomo by surprise. This week again,
DiGiacomo’s phone has been ringing off the
hook since news of Malik’s invitation became
public.

The media attention has done little for Direct
Effect. The charity is still cash strapped; last
year, it brought in donations worth about half a
million dollars but less than $10,000 in cash.
Last weekend, DiGiacomo, who does not get a
salary, took Malik’s mother shopping for new
clothes in preparation for her trip to the White
House and nearly missed paying her own rent in
the process. A Go Fund Me Kickstarter-style
campaign ( http://www.gofundme.com/jfs01k) that she started In December is
languishing.

Still DiGiacomo stays positive. “My work is my
medicine,” she says. “I want to help more
people. There are so many more Maliks out
there.”

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