One by one, the social workers at “Help Me Grow Brighter Futures” walk into Crystal’s office to make their cases. Crystal is the Service Coordinator for this federally- and state-funded program, administered by the Montgomery County Family and Children First Council. It provides a broad system of services for eligible families, focusing on the health and development of infants and toddlers. Each of these dedicated workers makes their case why one particular family whom they serve should be one of those chosen for this year’s Christmas Project of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Crystal and her staff carefully study the requests to determine which families are their neediest clients. When the selection is made and the list is compiled, she contacts Carol Nancarrow, St. Mark’s coordinator for this long and rich parish tradition.

The Christmas Project’s roots reach back more than 40 years to other St. Mark’s outreach initiatives led by the late Ann Cobb. Over the past decades, it has served hundreds of children and their families with an abundance of food and countless gifts during the Christmas season. This past Christmas, this moderately-sized parish (average Sunday attendance: 55) served 22 families, including 41 children.

The project provides for each child both a “need” (e.g. a winter coat) and a “want” (a new toy, requested by the child’s parent). Working from the information provided by Help Me Grow, Carol personally contacts each family to discuss with them the special needs and wants of each of them. She carefully notes the needs of any handicapped children, diaper sizes, favorite colors for clothes, the race for any dolls, and other individually specific requirements and preferences.

Responding to the needs that the families and social workers have identified, the project has provided, for example, winter coats for a family of two grandparents and four children, and an XL puffer jacket for a teenager with special needs. Individualized “wants” that the families have requested, and for which the project has provided, have included a soft toy that talks and lights up for a six-year-old with cerebral palsy; soft tiles to make a safe play-space for a baby who has had multiple leg operations; and toys with gears to place and turn for autistic children.

Checking each family’s food

For the food to be provided, Carol notes types and flavors of baby food, any allergies (e.g. nuts), intolerances (e.g. lactose, gluten), as well as any religious restrictions (e.g. no pork products). Over the years, she has learned from the recipients about cultural preferences. Appalachian and African-American families, for example, have requested some form of greens as part of their customary Christmas foods, and Latino/a families have asked for rice and beans for their holiday celebrations. Like the gifts of needs and wants, each family’s gift of food is adapted to each one’s needs and traditions.

In 2017, a typical family received a turkey and a ham, plus many traditional holiday side dishes, both fresh and canned fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, and some holiday desserts, such as a pumpkin pie or cookies. Packs of baby food and diapers might be included as well.

On a designated Sunday in November, parishioners are invited to take home one or more paper ornaments. Each one lists the first name of a child, plus his or her “need” and “want.” Then they set off to do their shopping.

A couple of weeks later, the gifts are gathered for St. Mark’s Sunday Eucharist, in which the congregation prays for those to whom the gifts will be given. The gifts are brought unwrapped, because the parents want to see and wrap their own children’s presents. The church provides them with the wrapping paper and tape.

The money for much of the food comes from the proceeds of the church’s August yard sale. All the money made at the sale is used to fund outreach beyond the parish. As Carol puts it, “We raise the money by the sweat of our brows, usually literally.” In addition, one couple in the parish provides turkeys for each family. Other parishioners contribute money to supplement what is available for the biggest day of the project’s year: Shopping and Delivery Day.

Early in the morning, a group of about 15 parishioners gathers at the church. Each shopper is given his or her list of items and quantities, then a caravan of trucks, cars and vans heads to a nearby Meijer’s store. Carol has worked in advance with the store manager, who has many of the items ready on large flatbed carts. Others need to be located, collected, and transported to the front of the store. One or two cashiers have been assigned to process the enormous order, with Carol watching over the proceedings and paying the bill. Then it’s back to St. Mark’s.

Meanwhile, Carol’s husband, Don, has posted a large-print list of each family’s foods (identified as families “A” through “V”) on the first-floor walls of the church’s Community Building. Other volunteers ensure that the same letters are firmly attached to the bags that hold all the other gifts. In a scene of wonderfully organized chaos, workers walk up and down the hall, matching foods with each list. Then, after everything has been carefully double-checked, the boxes of food and the bags of other gifts are carried out into the waiting fleet of vehicles that will deliver them to the Help Me Grow office at the Montgomery County Job Center.

A stocked van ready to return from shopping

A large cadre of social workers, many of them smiling and laughing with excitement, meets the vehicles in the parking lot. They help carry everything into their offices. The aisles are lined with large letters, corresponding to the church’s labeling, so that each family receives its individualized gifts of food and Christmas presents. After the St. Mark’s members depart, each member of the staff eagerly takes the abundance of gifts to their client family, where they, too, are greeted with great joy.

As I tell our parishioners, our annual Christmas Project is, for me, the real beginning of Christmas. It is in our generous service to others, especially to those who are most in need, that we most faithfully follow the example of the One who has given us all the perfect Christmas gift.

Submitted by the Rev. Mike Kreutzer, rector of St. Mark’s, Dayton