A pretty Christmas story from Humboldt County

Read in today’s Times-Standard: Craigslist hoax generates community outreach for Christmas.

What started as an online hoax culminated on Christmas day with dozens of people banding together to help those in need, in what’s now being called “Miracle at Wabash and Union.”

Thomas Peace said he was scanning through the free section of Craigslist.com — a section of the classified advertising Web site usually reserved for old discarded dressers, stained sofas and gnarled mattresses — when he came across an ad promising a free meal to anyone who would show up behind the abandoned church building on the corner of Wabash and Union on Dec. 23.

The problem was, Peace said he quickly found a subsequent post from a woman saying she’d shown up hungry, only to find nothing. The free meal ad was identified as a hoax — an especially cruel one at that, as it seemed to prey on the community’s neediest.

Without giving it too much thought, Peace said he posted on Craigslist promising to make a turkey and round up some old clothes to bring down to the dilapidated church building on Christmas Day.

”I thought, at the very least, I can be there,” Peace said. “Me with one turkey is better than nobody at all. I had no idea what would happen.”

Over the next several hours, Peace watched posts flood Craigslist’s free section, with people promising to show up with toys, food, paper plates, plastic silverware and anything else they could offer. When somebody pointed out rain and hail were in the day’s forecast, posters volunteered tents and awnings.

”Everything we needed came together, and it was very effortless,” Peace said. “It was really a miracle.”

Helyn Soler said she watched the scene unfold on Craigslist and, before long, had emptied eight bags of clothes from her closet. Soler and her husband, Ray, then made their way down to Wabash and Union on Christmas Day.

Soler said she’s had two knee replacements and has trouble getting around or standing for long periods, but she wanted to help out in any way she could. So, Soler and Ray volunteered to use their beat-up old van, which has a tendency to overheat and belch smoke, to bus people to and from the old church.

Together, they drove by Eureka’s missions, outreach centers and budget motels, asking people if they wanted to come get a bite to eat and some winter clothes. They got some crazy looks, Soler said, but also found some takers.

”The overwhelming response from people was, ‘Wow, it’s just really good to know that some people really do care,’” she said, her voice flush with emotion. “You could just see the pain and the hurt and the anger in these people’s eyes, and it’s so sad.”

But, it seems that many of the 40 to 50 people who took time out of their Christmas Day to come help people in need, including Soler, found joy in helping others.

Terra Bell-Harper said she was so happy to see Peace’s post seeking to remedy the hoax that she brought her boyfriend and her grandfather down to Wabash to help out.

”It turned out to be one of my best Christmases,” Bell-Harper said. “Actually, we have to thank the original person who posted the hoax, because without that, I’m not sure this ever would have happened.”

Peace said about two dozen people left the Wabash church with full bellies and some warm clothes on their backs. However, people banded together to donate much more than that, Peace said, adding that he was planning on getting together Tuesday night to wash the remaining clothes before donating them to a local outreach organization.

Many of those who volunteered with Peace Christmas Day talked of making lemons of lemonade and banding together as a community to care for those in need.

But, the word miracle was never far from their lips.

”I’m not real religious but, when you witness something that defies the norm and is beyond the control of one person, that makes you feel really good. I think that’s a miracle,” Peace said. “I noticed that the folks who came really dug deep. They weren’t people who had money — they dug through their closets to find things that didn’t fit. They came in their broken-down cars. They did whatever they could to help.”

For Soler, it was a Christmas that won’t soon be forgotten.

”It was the best Christmas of my life,” she said. “There’s so much in giving that receiving can never, ever take the place of.”

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