The 2006 Advent season was a little shorter than usual because Christmas Eve fell on the fourth Sunday of Advent. The season’s brevity, however, didn’t stop students in two local Catholic schools from packing a month’s worth of generosity into three weeks. Instead, students at both St. John Bosco School in Seneca Falls and St. Joseph School in Auburn spent the Advent season collecting items for the needy in their communities.
During each week of Advent students at St. John Bosco School were asked to bring in specific items to be donated to the House of Concern in Seneca Falls, which serves the needy throughout Seneca County, said Mary Caffrey, the school’s principal. During the first week, students brought in such personal-care items as toothbrushes, toothpaste and deodorant. The next week they collected such paper products as paper towels and toilet paper, and the third week they collected soap and cleaning supplies.
“Our concentration was on things that cannot be purchased with food stamps,” Caffrey said.
The items students brought in each Monday of Advent were collected as part of the school’s weekly Advent Morning Prayer. During the project’s first year in 2005, students had simply dropped off the items in a designated location at school, but Caffrey said integrating the service project with the prayer services seemed to encourage students to become more involved.
“Sometimes children like to give as part of a group,” she said. “We just had tremendous participation from families. People were very generous.”
Caffrey said that this generosity far exceeded her expectations. For example, instead of just donating one box of tissues, most families instead sent in multipacks containing three or four boxes, she noted.
By the time school let out for the Christmas break, she added, students had collected enough items to fill two vans.
In the meantime, preschool through eighth-grade students at St. Joseph School participated in the Works of Mercy Advent Sharing Project and had been collecting items to donate to Auburn’s St. Alphonsus Food Pantry.
“We’re trying to fill a void there that oftentimes gets overlooked,” said Laura Christiantelli, coordinator of the annual project.
Students brought in paper products during the first week of Advent, personal-hygiene and cleaning supplies during the second week, and Christmas cookies and candies during the third week, she said.
“We wanted to make sure that when they filled the Christmas baskets at the St. Alphonsus Food Pantry, everyone had a treat,” said Christiantelli, mother of two St. Joseph students.
The students took the project very seriously, Christiantelli said, and each week they filled up the two large collection boxes she had placed in the school’s lobby. They then took turns transporting the donated items from the school to the food pantry, which are both on the grounds of St. Alphonsus Parish.
St. Joseph’s students seemed to enjoy watching the boxes fill up, Christiantelli said, and enthusiastically participated in the project, even though many of the students also were taking part in separate Advent service projects for their classes. The preschoolers had a “baby shower,” dropping off baby supplies and outfits in a playpen outside their classroom. These items were eventually donated to the Cayuga Seneca Community Action Agency’s program to help pregnant, parenting and at-risk youths.
The preschool teachers decided to focus on needy infants because their young students are familiar with the story of the baby Jesus being born in a stable in Bethlehem, Christiantelli said.
“The preschool teachers really feel the kids have a very close connection to that story, and they can understand the needs of a baby,” she said.
St. Joseph’s students in kindergarten through third grade collected small token gifts for residents of Auburn’s Mercy Health and Rehabilitation Center to show the residents the students “are thinking of them and praying for them and remembering them at Christmas,” Christiantelli said. Fifth-graders did chores to earn extra money, which they donated to a local needy family, and middle-school students put together food and gift baskets for a few other needy families, she noted.
It’s important for students to learn that Catholics are called to serve others, Christiantelli said. Many of the students are very blessed and don’t understand the struggles faced by less-fortunate families, Christiantelli and Caffrey agreed.
“Our children come from comfortable homes. They don’t have this experience firsthand of need,” Caffrey said. “I think that sometimes … people think that needy people live far away in Third World countries. I think it’s important for them to know it exists right in their own communities, and need isn’t a foreign thing.”
St. John Bosco’s Advent service projects also showed students that when all of their small individual donations — like packages of toilet paper or toothbrushes — are put together, the end result can be something so big it doesn’t even fit into a van.
“Don’t ever think that your efforts are too small. No one expects you to solve all the problems, but if you work with other people, you can accomplish amazing things,” Caffrey said.