Patricia Hickman's Secret Angels Project has been helping out women and children suffering from HIV/AIDS for nearly a decade, but tragedy almost kept the award-winning author from sticking with the program after its first year.
Eight years ago Hickman's world came crashing down when her 20-year-old daughter, Jessica, was killed in a car accident.
"I thought it was all over," Hickman said. "I felt like I would be too numb to continue with anything."
The Southern literary writer said she would even get lost going home from church or the supermarket.
"I was such a mess, but there was this inner spirit in me that kept me going ahead - and I attribute it God," she said. "He's the one who gave me strength and kept me going."
After much thinking and the support of many women who approached her about continuing with the program, Hickman decided to keep on.
The Secret Angels Program originated when Hickman reached out to Carolinas Medical Center to see if they needed any help when she moved to the area in 2000.
At first she wondered if they needed help training clowns, something she had done for years in Baton Rouge, La., where she and her husband, Randy, were closely involved with urban and hospital ministries.
CMC wasn't really interested in what she had to offer, so Hickman asked what they really needed help with. Their response was AIDS.
"There is a whole subculture of women who are overlooked, and, particularly at Christmas time, they don't have Christmas presents for their children," Hickman explained.
So in December 2000, she decided to get a group of women together to give these children in need a merry Christmas.
At first, volunteers couldn't meet with the children they were helping because of privacy laws. That's how Secret Angels got its name.
The 12 women who helped with the first year of the program received the wish lists of 23 children. During that first run, mothers did not want to put down what toys their children wanted fearing that they wouldn't get other necessities - such as shoes and clothing.
That's when Hickman and the other volunteers began thinking of not only helping children get the Christmas presents they wanted, but also helping the mothers out.
The organization has grown to help out families pay their rent and utility bills as well as to get the clothing and school supplies they need.
This past Christmas, Secret Angels was able to give $50 gift cards to either Target or Wal-Mart to each of the 120 children who now participate in the program.
During Thanksgiving, the organization gave gift cards to Food Lion to every family so they could buy a turkey and all the trimmings.
"Some of the mothers have said, 'if you wouldn't do this, we wouldn't have Christmas,'" Hickman said. "It's just incredible to know that this can happen in this country."
Hickman said the need for help is tremendous. She explained that women who contract HIV/AIDS are usually fine for a while until a crisis comes around.
Hickman gave the example of an abused woman with AIDS who had two small children and who returned home from a battered women's shelter to find that her husband took all the valuables and her house didn't have electricity.
After unsuccessfully negotiating the $600 bill with the power company, The Secret Angels Project paid the woman's bill. Hickman admits that the nonprofit only had $1,000 left in their account when they decided to go ahead with it.
"I sent that story out to my database and said 'could you please pray for this mom and that God will heal her and help her get back on her feet?'" Hickman recalled. "I got up the next morning and $6,000 had been deposited into my PayPal account."
That's how Secret Angels has kept going - through the donations of others.
The organization has a couple of drives going on right now to raise funds. The "10-for-10" campaign is asking people to commit to donating $10 per month this year - a total of $120 for 2010.
"If you don't get two Starbucks that month, you can put your $10 in, so it's a really easy way to give," Hickman said.
The community can also volunteer to help Secret Angels with their "Pass the Bucket" drives, which consist of passing around containers for people to donate money at sporting events or other occasions.
Hickman and her husband, who is now the executive director of Secret Angels, have applied for grants to hire a staff of case workers to further help the children and mothers participating in the program.
The Huntersville resident, who studied creative writing at the University of Arkansas, said her work with Secret Angel has influenced her writing. In "The Pirate Queen," which will be released in August, Hickman wrote a boy with AIDS into the story.
"The Pirate Queen" is about a woman who plans to leave her husband, but when he reveals that he has a terminal illness and wants to go away to the family's beach house everything changes. That's when the main character meets little Tobias, who was born with HIV.
"I just know too many Tobiases," she said.