MUNCIE, Ind. — Every year, the Secret Families Christmas Charity brings together thousands of volunteers to shop, wrap and deliver Christmas to local families in need. Now, that spirited narrative is being turned into a children's book, "One Secret Christmas."
Author Kathy Flatter, a retired Selma Elementary teacher, is no stranger to the program, and has volunteered several times. She told The Star Press she usually works as a gift wrapper but has also spent time interviewing families about their Christmas lists and delivered some items, too.
As COVID-19 surged during December 2020, Flatter decided she wanted to take that story beyond the big event, held annually on the first Saturday of December.
"It really feels like Christmas. It's the spirit of truly caring about others," Flatter said. "It's faith. It's miracles. It's what Christmas is about."
Discovering Secret Families
In her 31 years of teaching, Flatter has moved from a school in Greenville, Ohio, to Burris Laboratory School, to Perry Elementary to Selma Elementary School, where she spent most of her career.
By the early 1990s, she met fellow teacher Chris Holdren at Selma Elementary. In 2004, Chris and her husband, Al, founded Secret Families after they decided not to buy Christmas presents for each other, but for a family in need.
Flatter remembers hearing Holdren talk about the event in its early days, as volunteers prepared to wrap presents in the school's gym. At some point, she joined in.
"I was a wrapper, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this really is Christmas,'" Flatter said. "There's just so many people, like 1,000 people, and it's just all wanting to give and wanting to help."
Now going into its 17th year, the effort has helped more than 2,600 families in Delaware County. And once again, the event will begin at 6 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, at the Muncie Meijer, followed by gift wrapping at Toyota of Muncie and ending with deliveries to upwards of 400 families.
In her teaching career, Flatter also worked as a literacy teacher, teaching students about the fundamentals of writing, including narrative, persuasive and more.
"I saw the power of teaching kids, that they had a voice, and that only they have their story to tell," Flatter said. "I guess, eventually, I decided it was time for me to tell a story that was impactful to me."
Shortly after Christmas 2020, Flatter and Chris Holdren were exchanging gifts over lunch. She told Holdren she felt like it was important to tell their story.
Prior to writing "One Secret Christmas," Flatter wrote another book, "Frankie, a Superhero with Fur," which is about a courthouse facility dog named Frankie who works with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
From 2017: 'Courthouse dog' Frankie makes her debut
Moving on to the story of Secret Families, Flatter interviewed the Holdrens, asking about their favorite memories and experiences from the event. About a year later, she's ready to share it.
A look inside 'One Secret Christmas'
Along with illustrator Ted Shideler, Flatter tells the story of 9-year-old Katelyn, whose single mother is a parent of four, unemployed and wondering how to tell the family that Christmas might not come.
At school, Katelyn begins to worry, as she has to write Santa a letter, telling him what she wants for Christmas. She's heard her classmates brag about the items on their lists, and she can't help but think about her mom. But then, volunteers at Secret Families step in, delivering Christmas to Katelyn and her family.
It might be a generalized narrative, but it's all too familiar to the more than 2,000 families that have been helped through the charity since 2004.
As Flatter wrote the book, she pulled in plenty of real stories too. The Holdrens' daughter, Katie, has always been involved with the event. One year, she felt compelled to shop for her own classmate.
"Another one, there was a mom and it was snowing really bad. She didn't think Secret Families would be able to come and deliver the presents," Flatter said. "When they pulled up, she goes, 'I knew you'd come. I prayed all night. I knew you'd come.'"
Along with impactful moments, the book also explains how the event works, from the thousands of volunteers who shop and wrap, to everything being delivered.
Families in need are chosen through local school districts in Delaware County. Schools usually begin taking applications in late October or early November.
After being a teacher for three decades, Flatter found the book helped her reflect, especially when writing the part about the main character's letter to Santa.
"As a teacher, that was a real eye-opener for me, as I was writing it. I'm thinking, 'OK, you're a teacher, it's the week before Christmas break, it's pretty much crowd control," Flatter said. "So you think, 'I'll just write a letter to Santa.' And then I, I really thought, 'Oh, my gosh, what a horrible thing that must be for some kids.' That never occurred to me before."
As the book becomes available, Flatter hopes the cycle of giving and receiving in the spirit of Christmas is clear. For those who are in need this holiday, she wants the story to tell them that miracles can happen. For those who have everything they need, she hopes it inspires gratitude.
"I hope in this book that it's clear that sometimes we are all the receivers of someone else's love, and sometimes we're the givers. It's a cycle," Flatter said. "At the end of the book, the family who was served in the future they become the givers because they go back and help every year with Secret Families, which happens a lot."
Book signings, local shops and more
As the Secret Families event kicks-off this Saturday at 6 a.m., with shoppers, wrappers and delivery teams bringing Christmas to those in need, Flatter will hold a book-signing amid the holiday bustle that day.
The signing will take place at two locations, 6-7:15 a.m. at the Muncie Meijer, and then 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at Toyota of Muncie.
Holdren said there will be about 300 books available for $15 each. They can be purchased with credit card, cash, check and Venmo.
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For those who can't make it, "One Secret Christmas" is also available at The Mailroom on North Wheeling Avenue and at Parlour at Hazelwood on West University Avenue. It's also available on Amazon; just search "One Secret Christmas."
As the book becomes available, Flatter said all proceeds will go towards the Secret Families Christmas Charity.
"This is their book now. All the money goes directly into the Secret Families account. I don't get anything from it," Flatter said. "That was not my purpose. My purpose is strictly to help families at Christmas."
Charlotte Stefanski is a reporter at The Star Press. Contact her at 765-283-5543, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @CharStefanski.
This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Former Selma teacher turns Secret Families event into book