The Christmas season of giving can present hardships for those of limited financial means, and especially for those who experience homelessness, disability or are new immigrants. Catholic Social Services’ Helping Holidays program seeks to lessen the burden of expectation that accompanies this time of year by pairing donors with families in need of a little help.
Molly Cornish, the new Community Engagement Manager for CSS who oversees this seasonal program, is tasked with building partnerships with parishes in the archdiocese, other churches, and community groups to raise awareness of the programs offered, and their possible roles in assisting its work. Her public relation skills foster connections between volunteers and the organizations or programs which can best make use of the time, talent and treasure they offer.
Helping Holidays pairs generous donors with families whose members are clients of Homeless Family Services, Family Disability Services and Refugee and Immigration Services (RAIS)—three programs run by Catholic Social Services. The program, which provides simple gifts for children, household necessities, and financial help in the form of gift cards to local businesses, serves approximately 50 families each year. It has done so for over a decade.
The social services website, cssalaska.org, provides an informative list of the families seeking assistance each year while protecting their identities and circumstances.
According to Cornish, “each family becomes a part of Helping Holidays a little differently. For example, each of the RAIS families who have arrived here in Alaska in the last year is listed (with the program). For our other programs, families become a part…in a variety of ways. Sometimes direct care providers let CSS case managers know that the family needs assistance during the holiday season,” she said.
The provider may suggest to them what to include on their wish list, or ask them if they would like to provide their own list, for themselves or their children, she added.
While the agency does not keep records of the dollar amount of assistance offered each year, most families request two to four items for each individual with an average amount of $25.00 for children and $50.00 for adults. Donors are free to choose families of various sizes and ages depending on their own preferences, budgets, and desire to share.
Once a donor is paired with a family or individual, detailed lists are provided, and the donor is free to choose gifts or gift cards within the recommendations. Things most commonly requested are clothing, boots, household items, decorative items, and toys. CSS staff help to tailor donors with recipients. For those unable to sponsor a whole family, Cornish suggested perusing the year-round wish lists posted on the website. She stated, “Gift cards and general donations are always greatly appreciated and another way to give.”
While donors and recipients remain anonymous, their impact on each other is inspiring and heartwarming. Issa Spatrisano, Program Director and State Coordinator for RAIS, shared a story of a family who benefited from Helping Holidays outreach last year. She told of a Congolese family of four who received $200.00 in gift cards to Walmart and Fred Meyer, as well as blankets and winter gear. “When the family arrived in Alaska, they had been provided pots and pans. However, they were not provided a pot large enough to cook a traditional Congolese dish. Because of the generous help of donors through Helping Holidays, the family was able to purchase the large pot with the gift cards. This gift ensured that even while thousands of miles away from home, they had the ability to cook their traditional food,” Spatrisano said.
As CSS serves a diverse population with a variety of needs, its case managers emphasize the importance of gift cards, which may seem impersonal, but often give the family or individual the autonomy to go out and shop for themselves and their children. The convenience of the cards is enhanced by the fact they do not need to be wrapped and are easily transported to the offices of Catholic Social Services, located at 3710 E. 20th Street in east Anchorage, as well as the recipients. Gifts and gift cards can be brought to this location from December 2 until December 17, labeled for the family chosen.
Cornish also noted that while individuals often sponsor families, the task of doing so is often shared by companies and organizations. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton parish, for example, has multiple people who collectively choose families to sponsor. Saint Anthony parish has an “Angel Tree” in its vestibule where folks can choose to purchase specific items for the general needs of the guests at Clare House, the RAIS program located on its campus, and others.
There are many opportunities in the community to share the spirit and joy of giving, not just in the holiday season, but year-round.
For Molly Cornish, this outpouring of generosity fills her with awe. She said, “Catholic Social Services provides support to so many families and individuals through the year, and especially during Christmas. Being new to the organization, I am astonished at the outpour of support this organization receives from our community. The donors and volunteers who choose to share their time and gifts with CSS are truly wonderful people. We are so grateful for the generosity…and especially thankful for those who choose to share their gifts in order to make Christmas time special for the vulnerable and those in need.”