Program lends holiday help
By now Christmas trees have started to appear on many curbs, and the holidays are just warm memories for many. Christmas won’t rise to the forefront of most people’s consciousness again until November, but Peg Dietl will start thinking about it in August.
That’s when she will begin working on the Christmas Sharing Program at St. Mary of the Lake Parish in Ontario, where she is a parishioner. She and her husband, Steve, coordinate the program with Bobbi and Al Wilmes.
St. Mary Parish hosts the program, which is the result of collaboration between several local churches and businesses, and the program provides food and gifts to hundreds of people in the Ontario area each year.
“It’s not just St. Mary’s. We could never do it by ourselves,” Dietl said. “We provide each family Christmas dinner, which includes a turkey and all the fixings. They have probably two weeks worth of food.”
Each family also receives two gifts for each child under 18 as well as one family gift, Dietl said. These gifts are donated by people throughout the community who take a paper star with a gift idea off one of the special trees placed in local churches during the month of November.
The process begins much earlier than that, however. In late August and early September Dietl contacts the local school districts and asks for lists of needy families in the district. She then sends letters to those families and previous Christmas Sharing Program beneficiaries to see if they’ll need some extra help during the holiday season.
Participating families tell Dietl about their family members and a few items their children want or need for Christmas. The program coordinators then write those items on the star ornaments, Dietl said. Members of the community can choose a star with a specific item, or they can choose a star instructing them to purchase a gift of their choice for the family.
“We have no control over what comes back in. We always think that’s God directing traffic,” said Dietl, who said program volunteers put out about 600 star ornaments this year.
“For some of the families, I imagine the two gifts we give them are their Christmas. The Ontario Quilting Society donated 184 handmade stockings. What a great thing, and to imagine that some of these children might not in their life have gotten a stocking,” she added.
Donated items for 2007’s Christmas Sharing Project were dropped off at St. Mary Parish the weekend of Dec. 8-9. Dietl and her fellow volunteers then spent the next week sorting the items, wrapping them and packing up each family’s gifts and food, which is donated by a local company that wishes to remain anonymous, she said. Families picked up their food and gifts at the parish Dec. 15.
“There are so many people that help us. It is just a mountain of gifts that come in. We have one week to sort it all out,” she said.
“She’s got it down to a science, and she knows exactly what’s going on,” marveled St. Mary parishioner Linda Sheehan, a first-year volunteer with the Christmas Sharing Program.
Sheehan wrapped many of the gifts that were dropped off at the parish, and said she had so much fun that the wrapping barely seemed like work. “The whole parish center now is all presents. (Dietl) has got her little elves here this week. She’s Mrs. Claus,” Sheehan told the Catholic Courier Dec. 12. “It’s such a big undertaking and she does a wonderful job. She has such a glad heart about the whole thing,” added Kathy Pritchett, parish secretary, who also was wrapping presents that day.
Dietl has coordinated the program for about five years, but it has been in existence for nearly four decades. The program has grown by leaps and bounds since it’s inception, perhaps due in part to the increasing cost of gasoline and an often-precarious job market, she said.
“They started with 10 families. When I started five years ago we had 85 families. The next year we had 115. Last year we served 150 families, so it’s grown,” Dietl said.
Dietl said she became involved with the Christmas Sharing Program because, although she had been an active volunteer in her church and her children’s schools, she’d never done something that would strictly benefit those outside her immediate family and social circle. Although the amount of work involved with this project easily could be overwhelming, Dietl believes her involvement in the program is part of God’s plan.
“All of those volunteer jobs I did and the jobs I had before I was married all went to help me do this job,” she said. “It’s a calling, because this is nuts. Nobody would sign up for this for six months volunteering for almost full time unless they were called. It’s wonderful and nuts at the same time.”
The rewards she receives from her involvement are well worth the effort put forth, Dietl added.
“My life has changed. What matters has just become more laid out. The matters of the heart are job one. At the end of the day that’s what matters,” she said.
Some of the program’s beneficiaries are going through extremely difficult situations, and often she smiles at them — often eliciting smiles in return — only to come home after the distribution and sob over their predicaments, she said.
“It’s just a Band-Aid. You can’t solve all their problems, but you can certainly give them a sense of belonging and love, and of course, nourishment,” Dietl said.