For years, couple found Christmas among poor in Appalachia

| Susan Klemond | December 16, 2010 | 0 Comments

Bob and Elaine Eberhard have used their small farm in Oakdale as a local launching point for the Appalachian Christmas program of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women. Each year, a semi-truck would be parked in their farm yard, and people would drop off gifts that would be loaded onto the truck and delivered to rural Kentucky. This year, because of health issues, the truck was parked at the home of Vernon and Olive Hupf of St. Pius V in Cannon Falls. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Elaine Eberhard thought she had all the answers about poverty in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky — until she went down and saw it for herself.

“I used to think ‘if they’re hungry, why don’t they plant a garden?’” said Eberhard, 79, who with her husband Bob, 80, attends St. Peter parish in North St. Paul. “We should send them some seeds and they could plant a garden.”

But when the Eberhards, now-retired dairy farmers, first brought their 26-foot cattle trailer and pickup filled with food, clothing and Christmas gifts to eastern Kentucky in the early 1980s, they found out the rocky soil there wasn’t good for gardening, and the people didn’t have many economic opportunities.

For about 35 years, the couple and their family were involved with the Appalachian Christmas program of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Their involvement included about 17 years when they, their son or grandchildren helped load and bring hundreds of items donated by local parishes to the poor in Appalachia.

End of a fruitful era

When a semi-truck left the Twin Cities Nov. 16 for Kentucky — three-quarters full with this year’s donations from the archdiocese, Duluth and Brainerd — it marked the first year in many that the Eberhards had not received and loaded the collection at their Oakdale farm.

The collection for two Kentucky towns began in the early 1970s when Father Terence Hoppenjans, then stationed in Beattyville, Ky., appealed to a priest friend in Minnesota for assistance, hoping that helping families at Christmas might benefit his evangelization efforts, Elaine said. Father “Hop,” as he is called, sent a list with each family’s needs to Minnesota.

Soon the ACCW began administering the program at parishes, and Elaine helped collect the items for her then-parish, Transfiguration in Oakdale. In 1975, the Eberhards’ son Bob offered to drive down and help deliver the Christmas gifts. After that, the entire family loaded vehicles, brought the goods down and helped distribute them, and made items for the poor, she said.

About 60 archdiocesan parishes now serve roughly 400 families, Elaine said. Rather than going to individual families, the Twin Cities’ collection is now sent to two free stores, where recipients can shop.

Memorable moments

Elaine still has vivid memories of delivering the Christmas packages in Kentucky. The families would “have their potbellied stove in their shack there and they’d have to sit around it to keep warm because the wind would just blow through what they had for houses there,” she said, adding that some families now live in better-insulated trailer homes.

She recalled a disabled boy who had to place his foot under the wheel of his wheelchair to prevent it from rolling across the slanted floor of his family’s home. Elaine said she was surprised at the boy’s gratitude for the small toy he received.

“He couldn’t talk hardly at all, but he’d have a big smile on his face and tell Father that he just enjoyed that so much,” she said.

Elaine said she was shocked to find such poverty in the United States.

“To me it seemed hopeless; I would tell Father that,” she said. “He’d say, ‘No, nothing is ever hopeless. Keep on trying. You plant the seed and someday they will bloom,’ he said, ‘hopefully.’”

Along with becoming more aware of the need, Elaine said she also came to appreciate Minnesota Catholics’ compassionate response to the poverty: One woman began making 100 quilts, while Roseville-based trucking company Terminal Transfer Inc. carried the load to Kentucky free of charge.

“The goodness of people comes out and it’s just enjoyable,” she said. “Makes you have faith in the world.”

Abundant gifts

Olive Hupf, who with her husband Vernon took over receiving and loading the donations this year, agreed with Elaine.

“What we’ve been able to help with is probably just a drop in the bucket, but it’s wonderful the gifts that our people are willing to donate,” she said.

Hupf, a member of St. Pius V in Cannon Falls who also manages the Appalachian donations for parishes in the southeastern area of the archdiocese, praised the Eberhards’ years of dedication to the program.

“Once they got the gifts it wasn’t just the loading of the gifts. . . . They went down with their own trailers and their trucks and their son went down,” she said. “Just being able to be of assistance, helping to get it to these people. These guys, they’re dedicated people.”

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Category: Christmas