by Emma Vonder Haar
Even though it’s (almost) February, it seems like we are finally wrapping up the Christmas season here at Good Shepherd. Of course, the decorations are down, the trees are back in storage, and the day to day hustle and bustle has died down. However, we still hold the gratitude of the season in our hearts and recognize how wonderfully blessed we are.
This was my second Christmas as a staff member of Good Shepherd, and, again, I was blown away from the generosity of our friends and donors. We fulfilled the Christmas wishes of 346 clients, including 126 foster children and their siblings, 11 teen moms and their babies in our Maternity Shelter, and 53 expectant and newly parenting moms in our EP program. 97 wonderful donors made this happen, and we are so thankful for them.
One such “donor” was St. Francis of Assisi parish, where parishoners collected gifts for weeks during advent through their Giving Tree program. For the past two years, I have had the joyful opportunity to personally thank those from the parish (which, coincidentally, I grew up in) and speak at Masses after Christmas. Last year, I explained about our programs, who we serve, and how the Christmas gifts blessed our clients. This year, I had the opportunity to do the same, to share stories and give thanks for the generosity of the parish:
Hi, my name is Emma Vonder Haar and I am a long time parishioner of St. Francis. My parents joined the parish when I was a baby, and I my brother and I attended kindergarten through 8th grade at the school. I now work for Good Shepherd Children & Family Services, an agency of Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of St Louis that serves moms, babies, kids, and families. We serve clients through four programs: Foster Care, Infant Adoption, Pregnancy & Parenting Support Services, and a Maternity Shelter for homeless teenage mothers and their babies.
I’m here today to simply say thank you for all that this parish has done for the young clients that we serve at Good Shepherd. We are one of the recipients of the gifts collected through the Giving Tree. Growing up here in the parish, the giving tree was part of my family’s Christmas traditions. My parents would wait with my brother and I as we carefully chose a paper ornament that had “12 year old girl” or “infant boy” written on it. We would get to select a gift based on the ornament, carefully wrap it, and place it here in church. However, it seemed like one Sunday during advent, this pile of gifts would just disappear. I never knew where these gifts went, and I didn’t know that Good Shepherd was one of the recipients until I started my job as Communications Coordinator.
If you’re in church during Advent, you know how large this pile of gifts grows over those few weeks of the giving tree. It can seem almost overwhelming, a tangible sign of this parish’s generosity. I’d like to tell you what it looks like from the other side, on that Sunday that the gifts “disappear”. We load up the gifts designated for our kids on Sunday, and our van takes them to our office in University City. I’ll tell you, that Monday morning is overwhelming – in a good way – as well. We sort gifts and make sure they go to the right child or family that they are designated for. There are toys and books and games and onesies and diapers and cleaning supplies, all there to help our clients.
In this frenzy, it may seem like this is all materialistic, but on that Monday morning, I am so proud of our parish. I know, for some of us, picking up an extra bottle of Tide or a few more toys when shopping for our own families isn’t a big deal. It doesn’t seem like a small sacrifice would have a big impact on someone else in need, especially someone whose name you don’t know or face you’ve never seen. I can tell you firsthand how much of a deal these gifts are to our clients.
When a pregnant mom in one of our programs, who lives 200% below the federal poverty line, receives a basket full of toilet paper, laundry detergent, and paper towels for Christmas because she didn’t want anything for herself, only items to help her take care of her family, you are saying to that woman that she is cared for, she is loved, and the life that she is carrying within her is sacred. When you give a football to a 10 year old child in foster care, who has been separated from his parents, his brothers and sister, his home, his school, and his friends, you are saying to him that he matters, that someone cares about him, and that he is cherished. Christmas is not an easy time for most of our clients, for our kids who are separated from their families in foster care, for our young mothers who wake up in a shelter on Christmas morning, for our adoptive couples waiting for a baby, and for our pregnant clients struggling to make ends meet. You help to make Christmas an easier, simpler, and more joyful time for our neighbors in need. I got a text from one of our foster care case managers, forwarded from one of her foster families on Christmas morning: “Merry Christmas. I just opened my gifts and wanted to send a special thank you for the jeans. I really really needed those. The kids love every gift. Thanks for making today a good day”.
You made Christmas a good day for 346 moms, babies, kids, and families in St. Louis. For 126 kids and their siblings in foster care, for 11 homeless teen moms in our Maternity Shelter, and 53 expectant and newly parenting moms and their kids in our Pregnancy and Parenting Support Program. I wish I could tell you their names and their stories and really how much your generosity and willingness to serve our clients means to them, and how much it means to us. Without the support of this parish and the incredible sacrifice of our parishoners, we would not be able to make Christmas happen for all of the moms, babies, kids, and families that we serve. I cannot thank you enough for helping us to serve our clients.
After Mass, I had the opportunity to greet parishoners and hear personal stories. I spoke with women who had adopted babies through Catholic Charities (babies who are now in their fifties), I met families who were involved in foster care, and I got to share more of our work and mission with individuals. Though my mission was to help connect donors with the clients that they served through this Giving Tree program, I found myself reflecting on seeing the faces of those who donated diapers, toys, clothes, and games for our young clients in need. It was a great blessing to give thanks in such a personal way, and I am so grateful for those that help us serve our clients.