I am what is often referred to as a cradle Catholic, meaning I was born into a Catholic family. We regularly attended mass, I attended what we called “religion school” every Wednesday night from K-6 and I began my participation in the sacraments of Reconciliation, Communion and Confirmation right on schedule. One of my fondest memories of church from my youth was the Giving Tree that showed up every November. My mother would let me select 2 or 3 ornaments off the tree and then we would go shopping together to pick out just the right gift for each ornament. I was an only child born into a middle-class family; not having the basics of life or not getting Christmas gifts was never a concern I had growing up. The Giving Tree was one of several ways my parents taught me that everyone did not live the same life I was given and that, given much, I was expected to help others. As I grew up, got married and began my own family, participating in the Giving Tree remained an annual tradition in my life and was part of my social responsibility teaching for my child. In 2014, after seven years of being involved with Confirmation and the Life Teen programs, I felt like it was time to do something different. I didn’t feel a strong calling to anything in particular, so I prayed for God to let me know how I might next help my church community. Not long after, I saw the notice in the bulletin seeking someone new to take over the Giving Tree and knew this was it. I reached out to the office and was connected with Jean Murray, who had been managing this task for ten years. We managed it together that year, with Jean imparting all her hard-earned wisdom on the best way to make things work smoothly. For that, I am forever grateful.
The families we sponsor via the Giving Tree are assigned to us from The Voluntary Action Center. In 2017, I started volunteering to assist the VAC during their October registration period for the program. Even though I had no idea which families would be assigned to us, I felt like this activity would give me a glimpse into who we were helping, a reminder of the people behind the names on the ornaments. The conversations I have with those, mostly, women are one of the reasons I keep doing this ministry each year. Their gratitude is deep. The gifts we provide do not solve all their problems, or solve the bigger world problems, but they do provide a spark of joy or a hint of light during a time of year that can be very difficult for many. I have been told more than once, having someone who does not know you at all provide one special day for your family means a lot.
All that said, my reasons for doing are not fully altruistic. I get a lot from this ministry. I pray over the lists each year, asking God to guide me as I decide what to request for each person. I pray over the tree after I set it up each year, asking God to provide for those in need. Then my church community responds in ways I never see coming, every year. As we are all painfully aware, 2020 was…….challenging. The VAC had a record number of families ask for assistance. They were not sure they could find sponsors for all of them as some organizations were having to decrease their usual level of support. I prayed and prayed and didn’t really feel like I had an answer, so I just took a leap of faith and said St. Thomas More Newman Center and Parish would sponsor the same number they had in 2019. With in-person church attendance limited since March, I really wasn’t sure how this would all play out. We brainstormed ideas to expand giving opportunities to those worshipping from home and utilized more social media outlets to let everyone know how they could still help. It was overwhelming to watch this community come together to provide for these families via in-person giving, remote monetary donations, shipments direct to church and other avenues. I lost track of the number of calls and texts I received asking if I needed more. God called this community to provide during hard times and provide they did.
To be sure, there are challenges with collecting, sorting, labeling, ensuring a certain amount of equity between siblings, packaging up per the instructions and delivery gifts for 75 people in a small space, in a short window of time but the tired that comes from these tasks is the best kind of tired. We are called to love and we are called to help. This ministry is such a concrete visual of that calling in action. Below is a picture of the truck loaded up with all of the generous giving from this community.