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A theft inspires holiday gifts

Mirna Gonzalez and her son touched the hearts of readers, who want to help the L.A. family.

December 22, 2009|Sandy Banks

Within an hour after my column about Mirna Gonzalez was posted on The Times' website Friday night, a dozen e-mails offering gifts and cash had landed in my in-box.

All weekend, readers kept writing -- 148 by Sunday night -- asking how they could help Gonzalez, an unemployed single mother of three who was robbed moments after she cashed in the $620 in change she had saved all year for Christmas.

"I was a single mother on a shoestring budget for years," wrote Jen Hoff of Ladera Ranch. "I understand some of what she has been through. Please let me know how we can be of assistance."

I had written about Gonzalez not as a symbol of want but as an example of generosity. She had surprised 25 staffers at MEND, a San Fernando Valley charity, with a home-cooked lunch to thank them for the Christmas box of gifts and toys she received after the robbery.

I was touched by her humility and the maturity of her 12-year-old son Julio, who shook off the loss of the iPod he wanted and focused on comforting his mother, reminding her to be thankful that she was not hurt.

That attitude touched a chord with readers too, regardless of ethnic group and income level.

I heard from Greenblatt and Gomez, Chan and Ngwaba; from London and Alaska and Santa Ana; from Jews and Muslims, and from Christians who found in Mirna Gonzalez a symbol of the holiday's meaning.

"As I write this using my brand new MacBook Pro with all the trimmings . . . I'd like to say thank you to Mirna for reminding me that Christmas is not about shopping, receiving and decorating," wrote Kathi Wager of Glendale, "but about giving sacrificially from the heart because we have been given so much from God."

::

It's hard for me to fathom that on a weekend when 10,000 kids showed up for a skid row toy giveaway and hundreds of parents lined up overnight outside Staples Center for free kids' bikes, enough donors stepped forward for this one family that Julio will probably wind up with, as one reader said, "an iPod for every day of the week."

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, especially during the holidays, we tend to be "suckers for a good story," as Rhees Burket of Fairbanks, Alaska, put it when he offered to join the "zillion" people he imagined were lining up to buy Julio an iPod.

It wasn't quite a zillion, but enough readers leapt to help that I got a new perspective on a Christmas season that has been characterized until now by how much less we're able to spend, and how bad we feel about it.

Some messages had the sort of can-do tone that suggests familiarity with success. "No need to go into a long explanation," one woman wrote. "Bottom line . . . I want to buy her son an iPod."

Other readers unwound their own stories of loss, sensing a bond with Gonzalez. "I'm on disability, just lost my mom and sister to breast cancer . . . and not having a good Holiday season," wrote Fred from North Hollywood. "I don't have much, but would like to send $15 to help her and her kids out."

Maybe weeks of penny-pinching spawned the in-box display of generosity. It's a season that seems to need redeeming.

"I'm not a fan of Christmas because of what it has become," wrote Tony Villanueva, a Hollywood costume designer who has worked with stars like Madonna and Tina Turner. He's unemployed now "and money is a little tight," he wrote. "But my iPod is almost brand new and I hardly used it. . . . If he can figure it out, he is welcome to it!"

And some drew lessons that go far beyond Christmas and seasonal gift-giving.

Stephen Kienzle has been studying the balance sheet of his struggling video production firm, wondering "how will I ever recover," he wrote.

"Mrs. Gonzalez has just shown me," he said. "I do not need to recover my income, I need to recover my dignity, my tenacity and my confidence. . . . If just a little of Mirna's moxie rubs off on me," business will be better than ever.

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Sometimes it takes a peek at someone's misfortune to put our blessings in perspective.

Two years ago, Arcadia pharmacist Mark Burstyn thought he would have to close the doors to his Colonial Pharmacy. "I had a couple bad years," he said. "My kids were embarrassed to ask for what they wanted."

This year, his children are 15 and 20. One wanted a video camera and the other a phone for Hanukkah. "They got them. No problem," he said. And Burstyn spent enough with a business supplier to get a complimentary computer.

On Monday, he sent the laptop to Julio, with a pair of giant stuffed animals for his baby brothers.

"The pharmacy business isn't doing great, but I can afford $140 bucks for an iPod," he said when I called him. "And here's a lady throwing coins in a jar, and all her money gets stolen from her.

"I don't know if I've always been grateful," he said. "All my life, even when I didn't have a lot, I had enough. She made me appreciate that.

"I don't want some kid to go through 2009 with the feeling that this is the worst Christmas. 'My mom got robbed and I didn't get the iPod I wanted.' I want him to say, 'this is the best Christmas in my life."

And when Burstyn hung up, he was bawling.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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