By Mary Catherine Bishop
As Christians we celebrate the Advent Season in hopeful anticipation of the birth of our Saviour. We put up lights and decorations; assemble our nativity scenes; shop for gifts; prepare food to share at our tables and gather as a community to pray around our Advent Wreath, asking God to help us prepare our hearts for the gift of the Messiah, the Light of the World.
For many of our brothers and sisters in need, Christmas is a time of darkness and despair. Parents who struggle to feed their families on a daily basis wonder how they will manage to buy gifts for their children. Christmas is not just about gifts, but in the eyes of a child, Santa is magical and parents often go to great measures to ensure their children experience Christmas Joy.
Ten years ago, our parish launched the Helping Hands Program, to offer help to families in need. Our St. Vincent de Paul Conference was already doing wonderful outreach, but they were limited to helping only those who live in our parish boundary.
It was 2009 and the Ford plant had just closed. Through my network of resources, I was hearing countless stories of families who were struggling financially because of these job losses. That year, most of our hamper recipients lived in St. Thomas and we worked together with the St. Thomas Christmas Cares program to provide help for these families.
The following year I reached out to the principals of our schools, asking them to refer families that could use a helping hand. That year thanks to the generosity of St George Parishioners, we delivered over 60 food and gift hampers throughout the city.
Each year our program grew and we found new organizations to work with, in order to help more families. Last year, Fr. John issued the parish a challenge. As 2019 would be the 10th anniversary of this program, he invited us to set a goal of helping 500 families!!!
We met monthly to talk about the ways that we could increase our numbers without exhausting our resources or burning out our volunteers. In discussions with Fr. John we talked about the importance of creating projects that we could sustain each year.
We had grown over the years to sponsoring 120 families and couldn’t imagine adding on another 400 hampers. We brain stormed together and called upon the Holy Spirit for Divine Inspiration at meetings, until it came to us. We don’t have to provide hampers to all 500!! There are many different things we could do, we just needed to get creative.
As the planning continued, we decided it was important to not only ask parishioners for funding and sponsorship, but we needed to provide an opportunity for them to get more involved, and I am so pleased to share that this year we had over 100 volunteers involved, sharing their gift of time.
Our program expansion this year included the following: Christmas Carolling and gift giving to over 100 residents at our 3 nursing homes; assembling and distributing 200 blessing bags for the homeless; doubling the number of new coats purchased to donate to children through our Coats for Kid’s initiative with the Knights; creating over 150 colourful Christmas cards and writing personal messages of love and support to our hamper recipients; teaming up with the Jansen Family Used Toy Drive and collecting almost 100 toys and gifts. All of this on top of the over 100 families that were sponsored by parishioners with the hampers of food and gifts. We certainly reached our goal, in fact we had a surplus of toys and money so we donated our toys to CAS and Lifespin so they could fill their orders and we donated 3000.00 to the London Food Bank the week before Christmas.
One of the greatest gifts I myself and our planning team experience each year, is the gift of being able to watch how people are transformed through their generosity. To watch a family drop off their hamper and share how they experienced great joy in being able to give to others, or to watch a volunteer wrap gifts for children they don’t even know, but imagine the joy they will experience. My favourite moments are watching the volunteer drivers load the hampers for delivery and return with stories of how grateful the recipients were. I would like to share a note I received from one of the families who received a hamper:
“Hi there, Just wanted to send a note of thanks for the lovely folks at St. George’s who prepared a Christmas hamper for my family. I’m a single mom with 4 children and recently started a new job but I won’t get a full pay cheque until February. My 12 year old van has been breaking down and needed many repairs. I was really worried about affording gifts for my kids this year. With the stress that comes along with a new job, worrying about childcare and finding my way this year has been such a load off my mind. I am so grateful for the love of God shown through others and the kindness to my family this season. I am hopeful next year that we will be in a much more stable place and I can show my kids the value of giving back and paying forward the love that we have received in our hard time. Thank you!”
I found a quote I would like to share written by Christian Evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton. “Christmas is most truly Christmas when we celebrate it by giving the light of love to those who need it most”.
I want to thank all of you who gave so generously to our program to make this work possible. Thanks also to all of volunteers who worked tirelessly. I believe that our combined efforts provided for others light in their darkness and hope in their despair.
I thank God for our incredible parish family and I ask that He continue to bless us as we grow together as faithful disciples reaching out to all!