Project Christmas gives Risen Christ families gift of dignity

| December 15, 2010 | 0 Comments

From left, Claudia Correa reacts as she looks at gifts donated to her family through Risen Christ School’s Project Christmas. Correa is a secretary at the school and also the parent of a student — Maria, a second-grader. Tessa Floersch is school secretary and also co-organizer of Project Christmas, along with Jane Keple, a school social worker with Catholic Charities. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Every year at this time, Helen Dahl­man’s office and conference room at Risen Christ School in Min­neapolis looks like a cross between a retail store and a consignment shop.

Shiny winter coats and snow pants in a rainbow of pinks, blues, greens and black were jammed onto a clothing rack that was wedged into a space near the principal’s small conference table. Boxes at the bottom of the rack were filled with hats, mittens and gloves that were sorted and labeled by size and gender.

All around the room, tubes of bright Christmas wrapping paper jutted out from lumpy garbage bags, tag­ged with numbers written on masking tape and leaning against the walls.

One by one, 139 of the 200 families who have children enrolled at the school have been picking up the bags, which are filled with Christ­mas gifts purchased with care by an anonymous donor specifically for each family.

“As donations come in, we want to get them out the door quickly,” Dahlman said. But maintaining the privacy and dignity of the recipients is always foremost in the minds of those involved.

Down to a science

After about 10 years of coordinating Pro­ject Christmas at the school, Jane Keple and Tessa Floersch have it down to a science.

Early in the school year, families are invited to submit a list of Christ­mas gift wishes for their children. A preprinted list asks families to include the following information for every child — newborn to 18 years old — in the home: the child’s name, age, grade, gender, shoe and clothing sizes, favorite color and items they need and want.

Floersch, Risen Christ’s bilingual secretary/receptionist and woman-of-many-talents, said that winter clothing is often the only thing on many of the lists.

“Jane goes through [the wish lists] and adds other gift ideas, based on a child’s age and gender, just to give the donor some other ideas,” Floersch said.

Keple, a bilingual Catholic Chari­ties social worker and school counselor, said, “We’re a school, so we like the whole notion that everything that children learn through play matters, too.

So I suggest board games, books, blocks, anything that has to do with child development.”

Tears of overwhelming surprise and joy often flow freely when parents come to pick up the gifts for their children, Keple said.

“It’s appreciation, but almost beyond, because they haven’t had this experience before,” she said. “I think it’s a nice connection for the families with the school and the greater community to know that they are cared about.”

Dahlman said that when the parents pick up the donated gifts, they often say: “All of this is for us?”

Many generous donors

Because of the donor families and organizations, such as Macy’s — which donated the cold weather clothing — families at Risen Christ, of which 61 percent are Latino, will have an abundance of gifts to give their children and, in many cases, to the children of relatives living with them. No child in the household is left out, whether attending the school or not, Dahl­man added.

Floersch said Project Christ­mas is worth all the work that goes into it because of the “joy it brings to my own sense of Christmas.”

The project has come a long way since the days when Holy Name and Holy Rosary would each provide gifts for about 25 parish families. But the requests kept growing at the combined Minneapolis school.

“It just didn’t seem right to us that we could only do that much,” Dahlman said. “We really wanted to serve those most in need.”

With 90 percent of the students receiving free or reduced-eligibility lunches, Floersch and Keple began offering the program to every family at Risen Christ School. Their only concern was finding enough sponsors. Although that has never been a problem, the two thought they wouldn’t have enough donors one year. Then, donations came streaming in and filled all their needs, Keple said.

“This year, every single one of our families was adopted out or sponsored,” Floersch said. “This is the first time I told potential sponsors that all the families were adopted out, but they could purchase gift cards for food.”

Catholic Charities help

This year, 30 of the school’s families are being served through Cath­olic Char­i­ties’ “Sponsor a Family” program, which provides gifts and food for families throughout the archdiocese. In 2009, Catholic Char­ities provided gifts and food cards for 1,331 families, giving an average of $75 per person to 5,962 individuals, according to the organization’s website, More than 428 volunteers provided over 4,000 hours of service.

Other donors to Project Christmas at Risen Christ come from the school’s staff, friends and volunteers; Holy Family High School in Vic­to­ria; Sacred Heart School in Rob­bins­dale; St. Bartholomew parish and school in Wayzata; St. John the Baptist in Excelsior; St. Peter in Delano; St. John the Baptist in Savage; Holy Name in Minneapolis; Children’s Hospital and Methodist Hospital, both in Min­nea­polis.

Many donors ask to buy for families that have children who are of similar ages, so that their children can learn the joy of giving to others, Dahlman said. Donors also include gifts for parents and often take on additional families as they learn more about their struggles.

Restoring dignity

“Our immigrant families are not making a choice to not learn Eng­lish,” Dahlman said. But because many of the parents are working two or three low-paying jobs, their work schedules leave little time or money to attend classes, she added. “Most parents are passionate about having their children learn to speak Eng­lish.”

This Christmas project gives parents the opportunity to wrap gifts for their children and “be on the giving end,” she said.

In return, parents and children from Risen Christ write or draw thank you letters to the donor families. Each recipient family is identified only by a number. Last year, Family 21 wrote:

“This is the first year I have truly needed help. I have always been active in volunteering, including Toys for Tots, Red Cross blood drives, supply drives for women and families who have been through abuse. . . . No parent wants to feel or know that they couldn’t do enough. Thank you and bless you for giving me the grace as a parent to have it all ‘be OK.’ My son was so happy with all the presents. Your kindness will never be forgotten.”

If you are interested in helping with Project Christmas, contact Tessa Floersch at (612) 822-5329.

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