Most of us consider the holiday season the brightest and happiest time of the year. The celebratory warmth of Thanksgiving and the clear hope of Christmas give us an opportunity to gather with loved ones in the embrace of God’s all-consuming love.
But it’s important to realize the holidays don’t feel that way for everyone. Some, because of setbacks like job loss, domestic upheaval or addiction – or because of memories of difficult holidays past – actually dread the holiday season. To them, it only underscores their feelings of isolation and loneliness. Catholic Charities’ Christmas outreach program, Project Bethlehem, is designed to brighten the holidays of families with children who would otherwise not be able to afford to celebrate.
Michelle Poole, Housing Program Coordinator with Catholic Charities, said that in Toledo in 2010, 53 families were helped.
“These are low and no income families, people who would not have had any Christmas if not for Project Bethlehem.”
Partnering with Santa
The program works by matching sponsors with families in need. The sponsors buy gifts for the entire family – age and gender appropriate gifts for the children, and useful items for the parents as well. The sponsors bring the gifts to Catholic Charities, who sees that Santa delivers them in time for Christmas.
“The sponsors can be parishes, businesses or individuals in the community who want to help a family enjoy Christmas. Some sponsors actually give to more than one family,” Poole said.
Catholic Charities also runs similar Project Bethlehem operations for dozens more needy families in Mansfield and Norwalk.
“Santa always appreciates our help,” Michelle said. “I’m told that even he’s having trouble making ends meet these days.”
In late 2005, Tonya Brown-Munn and her daughter, Veronica, stayed for several weeks at the La Posada Family Emergency Shelter in Toledo. Her own home had burned down, and she had nowhere to turn and no funds to tide her over.
Now, fortunately, Tonya is doing much better, but she still remembers the time she spent at the shelter as a time of healing, learning and growth.
“Being there was humbling. It made me reflect on how tenuous our lives really are,” Mrs. Brown-Munn, now a Business student nearing graduation from the University of Toledo, said. “Those people made us feel like we were at home when we didn’t have a home. They were so good to us. Now whenever I drive by, I beep the horn just to say hi, just to say thank you.”
In fact, Mrs. Brown-Munn does much more than that. This past April, she organized a Build-a-Bear and pizza party for the 20 children who were staying at La Posada at the time.
Dogs, ponies and an alligator
The party’s sponsors – Build-a-Bear and Marco’s Pizza – were approached by Mrs. Brown-Munn, who wanted to do something for the children of La Posada.
“I was working with executives at both Build-a-Bear and Marco’s on a project for school. In the course of that work, I happened to visit a Build-a-Bear store, and I saw the smiles on the faces of children who were enjoying building their own animals,” she recalled. “I thought, I’d like to bring those same smiles to the faces of kids who aren’t as fortunate, who maybe can’t afford to go to Build-a-Bear.”
She approached both organizations about sponsoring a party at La Posada, and she got a green light. So, on Good Friday evening last April, parents brought their little ones into the front room at La Posada and opened the bags of assorted stuffed Build-a-Bear animals – fluffy dogs, a huggable unicorn, an alligator, a few ponies, and – not surprisingly – several teddy bears of different sizes, textures and colors.
The smiles took place as scheduled, as wide-eyed children, excited at their sudden good fortune, clutched their furry new friends.
It was a party worth remembering for both parents and children, Jeanelle Addie, La Posada’s Case Manager, said. “I don’t think any of them will forget it any time soon.”
“Doing things for people – paying it back, paying it forward, whatever you call it – just makes you feel good,” Tonya said. “The people staying at La Posada don’t have much, and they can’t always do what they’d like to for their kids. But they enjoy good things as much as anyone. I just remember that the people who took us in at La Posada were able to make my daughter and me feel really good at a time when we were feeling really bad. And I wanted to do something to make the people who are staying there now feel good.”
Her little son, Cayden, is sitting in a high chair, looking like Calvin from the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. Under his mother’s watchful eye, he is feeding himself haltingly with a spoon.
It is the thirtieth day since Cayden and his mother came to Miriam House, Catholic Charities’ emergency center for mothers and children in Norwalk.
“I think he’s very bright,” his mother, Lindsay, says, obviously proud. “He wants to do everything by himself. He repeats everything.”
With her big eyes and her sweet smile, Lindsay herself looks like a young girl. But with an 18-month-old son to raise, no money coming in, and no place to stay, 23-year-old Lindsay’s problems were very grown-up.
Nowhere to go
Lindsay’s smile fades as her thoughts return to the recent and difficult past:
“I wasn’t working. I’d lost the job I’d had for four years. We lost our place and moved in with my parents. But my stepdad and I had a falling out, and they kicked us out. So we moved in with his other grandparents for about a month, but their landlord wouldn’t let us stay in their duplex because it was a single-family residence.”
Her hands tremble slightly as she moves to guide Cayden’s spoon.
“I would wake up in the morning and it seemed our situation would just be getting worse and worse. I had no place to stay, no way to see anything would get any better. I was getting depressed. Things were so hectic.”
And, she said, her son’s father was in no position to help.
“He’s got a felony on his record, so nobody will hire him.”
Not surprisingly, the stress Lindsay was under was soon reflected in Cayden’s behavior.
“He was hitting and biting and throwing things – basically doing anything he could to get my attention, so I’d hug him and tell him I was going to make it better. It wasn’t his fault, though. Things were so crazy – he didn’t have any routine or anything he could count on.
“Finally, the people at the CAC (the Community Action Commission in Norwalk) who knew my situation gave us the number here at Miriam House. I called and they had me come in. They explained the program to me, and it seemed almost too good to be true. They’ve been helping me be a better mother to Cayden, and he’s doing so much better already.
“If we complete the program, they’ll help us with a security deposit and the first month’s rent at our own place.”
What it takes
When she found out her story is to be printed in a Catholic Charities newsletter, Lindsay made it a point to emphasize how grateful she is to all those whose support makes Miriam House possible.
“You be sure and tell them how thankful I am!” she says. “Cayden, too! If it weren’t for Miriam House, I don’t even want to think what we’d have done.”
She pauses, crosses her arms and brings her hand to her mouth. Her big eyes have tears in them.
“We’ll be going to church here too. I know God’s a big part of what it takes to turn your life around. I’ve seen that before with people. And now I believe I’m ready for it too.”
It’s hard to get the whole story because Katie Barnes is so modest, so unassuming, about the good work she does.
“I don’t do anything so special,” she says, “There are a lot of other people – a lot of other people – who help. There are a lot of generous people here in Norwalk.”
And that’s certainly true. And now, thanks to Katie Barnes, all those generous people know who they can give their cash donations to, and their bake sale proceeds, and the clothing their kids outgrow – all the while knowing that their charity is going where it can do the most good.
“We’ve kind of adopted Miriam House,” Barnes says, speaking of the Catholic Charities shelter for mothers and children located in Norwalk. “It was back around Thanksgiving of 2009 that we really started getting involved.”
With Katie Barnes, it’s always “we,” never “I.” She heard somewhere that Miriam House needed help – food for the residents, and clothes and toys for the children.
“It was sad. The kids were wearing old clothes that didn’t fit very well, and they hardly had anything to play with. Just a couple of old puzzles. So I called my friend Toni who works at Miriam House and asked her what we could do for these people. We had a fund-raiser, raised some extra money, and bought them food for Thanksgiving – potatoes, bread, fresh vegetables and fruit. Then we had them put a wish list together for Christmas. We helped get them what they needed. I remember we made them some nice Christmas cookies that first year.”
Since then, the entire Wal-Mart family, including store manager Kathleen Sullivan, has pitched in.
“I remember getting a tour of the home after Thanksgiving,” Barnes says. “It was always clean and bright, but it wasn’t luxurious by any means. One of the mothers was giving me a tour. When we got to her room, she showed me a little Christmas tree. There was nothing under it for her child, nothing there for her. That really got to me. That’s when I realized, these people have nothing. It makes you grateful for what you have, I’ll tell you that.”
Like most parents, Amy Schnorberger gets teary talking about the gift that her children represent. But, unlike most parents, her gratitude is directed toward specific human beings as well as God. Because Amy and her husband, John, are the adoptive parents of Katy, 7, and Drew, 5, both of whom were granted life by mothers who could have chosen otherwise.
“When John and I got married, we just wanted to be parents. It didn’t matter how we accomplished that, really. We just wanted to raise children,” Mrs. Schnorberger said. “I can’t even tell you how much our children mean to us.”
[singlepic id=2 w=320 h=240 float=left]As you might expect, she has strong feelings on the topic of abortion. “To us, these birth families are heroes. They did what was best for the children, and not necessarily what was easiest for them at the time. They put aside what other people were telling them. They put aside their own understandable desire to get out of a difficult situation, and they chose adoption. I admire the courage and the faith of anyone who does that.”
Both adoptions were handled sensitively
“There are so many issues that surround any adoption. There is so much information both sets of parents need to have to make a good decision. Catholic Charities helped with all of that. There was no sense of hurrying the process along. They were thorough enough for all parties to feel they were making a good decision,” Mrs. Schnorberger said.
The Schnorbergers enjoy open adoptions for both of their children, which means they remain in periodic contact with the birth families of both of their children.
“How open you want your adoption to be is always up to the families involved,” Mrs. Schnorberger said. “And that’s where Catholic Charities is of service. They take the time to make sure the situation’s going to work for everybody – the child, of course, but also the birth family and the adoptive family. All of them need to be on the same page.”
The Schnorbergers looked at different adoption options – both international agencies and independent adoption services. But they felt that Catholic Charities’ compassionate and complete counseling process offered the best opportunity for both sets of parents to understand and give their consent.
“You have to remember, it’s not easy for birth mothers,” Mrs. Schnorberger said. “They have to think things through as they carry the child. And then at the end of that road, they have to say good-bye. I think it’s important that the selflessness of birth mothers be recognized.”
“In fact, at our house on Mother’s Day, these women are very much honored. It means so much when they tell us, ‘Every time we see you with these kids, we know we did what was best for them.’”