Catholic service organizations and parishes prepare for the season of giving during a pandemic

By Annette Alleva
The North Star Catholic

The season of giving associated with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays can be one of great joy for those with means and a generous heart. For those whose needs for the most basic elements of survival know no season, it can cause hardship and anxiety. Traditionally, churches and social service entities have worked valiantly to bring givers and receivers together in the spirit of love, fellowship, and caring, that this sacred season engenders.

The year 2020 brought tremendous challenges with a worldwide pandemic that in many parts of the country—including Alaska—continues unabated. As the need for assistance on many levels has increased, individuals and organizations have found creative ways to deliver services and goods to all who seek help.

Dave Ringle, general manager of the Society of Saint Vincent DePaul in Juneau, has served in that position for eight months and overseen various charitable efforts to assist others. The local Society has been providing material and spiritual charity and working for social justice since 1984. It operates several housing facilities, a shelter, a sobriety center, and a retail store that provides much of its income. According to its website—svdpjuneau.org—the Society offers “holiday assistance and year-round aid programs (to) help more than a thousand Juneauites make it through cold winters, tough times and bumps in the road. We put smiles on the faces of hundreds of children who would otherwise know a very bleak Christmas.”

Ringle, as he spoke with The North Star Catholic, was planning for the Thanksgiving Basket distribution. In light of the economic fallout of COVID-19, “we expect an increase in need,” he said. Organizations such as the Salvation Army and Love INC. (an association of Juneau-area churches helping the needy) are partnering with the Society this year. “We have decided to get together and have talked at length how to more effectively meet that need,” he added.

Approximately 300 people have signed up for the baskets, and Ringle noted that “donations are coming in higher than last year.” Lists of items needed for the baskets have been handed out at the local parishes of Saint Paul and the Co-Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Knights of Columbus pack everything, store it in a 20-foot container loaned by a local business, and eventually deliver it to the distribution facilities. Respecting social distancing mandates, volunteers get creative in working in diverse environments and small groups, Ringle said.

As Black Friday and the traditional Christmas shopping season fast approaches, plans for the annual “Adopt-a-Family” are underway. The Society and its partners serve 150 families who each turn in a “wish list” as early as October. Volunteers do the shopping. “Seniors love to take the presents and wrap them,” according to Ringle. He noted that many of those seniors are residents of a facility operated by the Society. These residents, eager to help in any way, often purchase cleaning supplies, toilet paper and other items on their trips to Costco. Their year-round efforts make the mission of the Society in Juneau “one of the largest five to ten active organizations within the Society, in one of the smallest cities,” Ringle said.

In Anchorage, Catholic Social Services has been at the forefront of providing for those with year-round needs and extra help during the holidays. According to Molly Cornish, Community Engagement Director, “we are still providing services for those in need despite all of the challenges. We are doing our best to keep everyone safe,” she said.

Folks are encouraged to donate to one (or more) of six programs facilitated by CSS. These are all programs with active case management, and the recipients of charity by the community are known by their case managers, Cornish explained.

Brother Francis Shelter, which was directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, has gone from a shelter regularly providing beds for 240 people every night to an accessible space for approximately 60-70 guests with mobility challenges. An upside of COVID-19 has been that in reducing capacity at the shelter, BFS has been able to provide a more personal level of service. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to deliver more one-on-one care and to promote wellness for the guests,” Cornish said.

New jackets, hoodies, socks, leggings, and headphones are among the suggested items people can give to the shelter for guests to open on Christmas Day. Folks who knit or crochet are encouraged to create hats, scarves, and mittens for shelter guests there, as well as at Clare House, a shelter for women and children. According to Cornish, Chugach Electric is hosting a sock drive, and AK Smiles is collecting winter gear. They are among several businesses in the community, helping to keep people warm and safe during the cold months now upon us.

The Knights of Columbus have been instrumental in collecting, organizing, and distributing shelf-stable food at Saint Francis House. Cornish said that the food pantry has seen a 30 percent increase in those needing assistance, and in one recent week, served over 350 families.

In-kind donations are always welcome, and many parishes in the Archdiocese have collection boxes where people can drop off shelf-stable foods. Generous volunteers deliver them to the CSS main center at 3710 E. 20th Avenue. Supportive Family Services has initiated a new giving program called “Bundle of Joy.” Every Friday at the center from 9:00 to 2:00, volunteers distribute diapers, baby wipes, and formula to any parent in need. “Bundle of Joy” is currently serving 48 families, Cornish said.

Giving tangible things is particularly appealing during the holiday season, and CSS’s “Helping Holidays” program is a popular recipient of generosity. Families in need create wish lists of items both needed and wanted. Donors can choose specific anonymous families to sponsor. Recipients are those in case management in several of the social service provider’s programs, such as Refugee and Immigration Program and Homeless Family Services, and others, who are in continuing need of moving kits, pots and pans, and cleaning supplies, to name a few items.

The sheer increase in demand for housing and food, Cornish explained, has made monetary donations of special value to the programs served by CSS. “$5.00 will provide lunch at a shelter, $50.00 will buy diapers for a family, $25.00 will purchase seeds for a garden,” she said, and added, “Donations are going a long way right now, all thanks to our donors and supporters. Every dollar, every mitten, makes a difference.” A complete “wish list” is available at CSS’s website: cssalaska.org

Thanksgiving Blessing—a city-wide effort to provide hungry folks with a Thanksgiving dinner box – is a joint effort between Food Bank of Alaska and several other churches and organizations in Anchorage and the Mat-Su valley. Saint Patrick parish has been a distribution site for the annual food assistance program for several years. People from other parishes, as well, have contributed money to help in the annual effort. New protocols for contactless distribution will be in effect, and seniors and those without transportation can arrange for delivery.

Saint Benedict’s parish in Anchorage is offering its Thanksgiving Basket Program as part of its Outreach Ministry. Betty Swanson, who has been instrumental in coordinating efforts, said, “It started between ten and fifteen years ago by Marilyn McMorrow and has grown to the whole parish being involved.” Parishioners are asked to provide specific food items according to the first letter of their last names. The outreach serves the nearby area. According to Swanson, being COVID safe is of utmost importance, “intake workers work alone, and drivers work alone.” And while the holidays spur a more intense effort to serve others, the need is on-going, and so is the work of several volunteers who sign up to make food deliveries throughout the year.

For Mary Snowball, a longtime parishioner of Saint Anthony parish, the days following Thanksgiving are not spent at Black Friday sales. For many years, Snowball has set up an “angel tree” in the church vestibule. Attached to the tree are little paper angels with lists suggesting the needs of three agencies in Anchorage. Folks return the angels attached to their donation. This year Snowball has chosen Clare House, Covenant House and Brother Francis Shelter as recipients for items ranging from personal care items, clothing, gift cards, and dozens of other items to ease the holidays for those in need. The items fill the floor space around the tree each weekend, so Snowball delivers the gifts weekly up to the last week before Christmas.

The pile of presents is a visual reminder of both the need and the local community’s generosity. It is one example of the myriad ways in which we are called to share our wealth with the poor and needy.

When the trees come down and the decorations are put away for another year, it is important to note that the need for food, shelter, clothing, companionship, and a wide variety of goods and services are always welcome in a world where need knows no season. For those of meager means, volunteer opportunities abound. The Society of Saint Vincent DePaul, Catholic Social Services and the many parishes throughout the vast Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau are always looking for folks with open hearts to serve their neighbors in need. Please check their respective websites for further information.


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