Wrapping gifts can be a fun yet daunting task. Imagine if the gift was a car.
The Bates Collision Center in Channelview did just that, making the recent holiday season extra special for San Jacinto College student Destini Rhodes. The education major received a mystery vehicle loaded with even more wrapped gifts as part of the annual Responsible Parenting Award organized by Bates and Harris County Department of Education's Head Start program.
"We wanted to do something more than just talk about family and family values," said Lee Bates, Bates Collision Center president. "Responsible parenting is so important, but it becomes even harder in some families where all the pieces aren't in place. One big piece that's often missing is reliable family transportation."
Their annual tradition began in 1999 after a car repair colleague did the same, inspiring the Bates. Since then, the company has given two refurbished vehicles each year to Head Start parents who demonstrate responsible parenting.
And the winner is ...
Head Start and Bates locate families with a "demonstrated record of good parenting and a drive toward independence and determination to hold down a job, even with the real need for a car," said Leila Bates, Bates Collision Center vice president.
To qualify, nominees must provide proof of employment, a valid driver's license, and a clean driving record. They also write an essay explaining their goals and how reliable transportation could help them achieve these goals. A committee of Bates employees evaluates the candidates and selects two families to receive a vehicle.
Rhodes made the cut and received a phone call from Lee Bates with the good news. She called it "a great blessing," even though she is the "I got it" type who rarely asks for help.
"For a unanimous group of people to think that I'm doing a great job at parenting my children is so heartwarming," Rhodes said. "I get mom guilt sometimes, just like we all do, and this reminded me I am doing a great job. I'm grateful for everyone who had anything to do with the behind-the-scenes effort that went into that very special day."
The fender reveal
"It's our favorite day of the year, when we get to see the smiles on the families' faces as they tear off the bright wrapping paper to find their shiny 'new' car inside," Leila Bates said.
Rhodes and her kids unwrapped the vehicle, a 2011 Chevy Equinox, during a ceremony attended by city officials, Bates staff, local media, and other supporters. Her kids received wheels of their own — three bicycles with helmets, each a perfect fit. Smiling, the kids opened a few of the gifts that filled the trunk before hopping inside to check out their future ride.
"My kids were so excited, especially to see so many presents," Rhodes said. "They opened two gifts before Christmas, but the rest I had to hide for Christmas morning."
A little kindness drives a long way
Rhodes no longer worries about how she will get her kids to school or make it to work herself.
"I do not have to ask anyone for help, which is something very hard for me," she said. "I have a huge weight lifted off my shoulders."
Although caring for her child with autism has become her "everyday life," she emphasized that "autism isn't everything about him." Her son's diagnosis and the experiences of being a parent with an autistic child inspired her major and career goals in early childhood education. With only two courses left at San Jac, Rhodes plans to pursue a bachelor's degree in early childhood or special education.
"I am very passionate about early childhood and the importance it plays in laying the foundation for the rest of a person's life," she said. "I know a lot of the challenges a parent goes through with an autistic child, and I want to be a part of helping parents receive all the support available to them."