By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Each year, confirmation students from St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville play Secret Santa for local families in need.
Working from wish lists submitted by families who partake in the annual Holiday Celebration in honor of Blessed Stanley Rother in Hills, “we send the youth out in Coralridge Mall and ask them to donate $25 dollars,” said Michelle Montgomery, director of youth ministry. “After they have all their gifts purchased, they return to our rented ‘Santa Workshop’ room to wrap, tag and bag their gifts.” The gifts are later delivered to the holiday celebration, which serves residents of local mobile home parks, a majority of whom are immigrants.
This year, Montgomery wondered how the youths could serve these families during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I started to rethink everything; how can we still provide this service and keep everyone safe?”
The holiday celebration’s founder, Laura Westemeyer, wondered the same thing. A member of St. Joseph Parish in Hills, she founded the event a decade ago as a way to reach out to residents in need at a local mobile home park. About 30 families gathered for the first party in the basement of St. Joseph’s for crafts, live music, a meal and early Christmas presents. “I want people to know how much we care … I hope they understand they’re not alone,” Westemeyer told The Catholic Messenger at the time.
The party has expanded over the years, with donors from Hills Bank, Ameriprise Financial, the Coralville parish and numerous companies and organizations stepping up to adopt families by purchasing wish-list items and making monetary donations. Recent gatherings have taken place at Hills Community Center to accommodate more families.
Westemeyer and other organizers opted to make the event a drive-through celebration this year, and supporters, including St. Thomas More parishioners, offered more gifts and financial contributions than ever before.
Families in need signed up for this year’s event through Open Heartland or Catholic Worker House, both located in Iowa City, or through their mobile home community. Additionally, organizers reached out to previous participants.
To ensure that St. Thomas More could adopt approximately 30 families, as in years past, Montgomery sent a “huge email” to parents of all high school and junior high students asking them to adopt a family and purchase wish-list gifts. “I was blown away by the huge response, that so many people wanted to help out,” Montgomery said.
Instead of meeting at the mall to buy and wrap gifts, families purchased gifts separately and dropped them off at the church about a week before the drive-through event. “We were able to have everyone come into the building wearing their masks, six feet apart, and they were in and out in less than 15 minutes,” Montgomery said of the streamlined process. Although organizers requested the purchase of one gift off a child’s wish list, most St. Thomas More families purchased multiple gifts for each child. Volunteers packed the gifts into a truck to deliver to Open Heartland.
On Dec. 12, 152 families drove to Open Heartland to receive their gifts, Westemeyer said. Guests also received bags of groceries, apples and oranges, toothbrushes and toothpaste, a fresh chicken for dinner, holiday cookies, hot chocolate and a $50 bill “to help make this Christmas a special one.” The drive-through celebration served 625 children and adults.
Montgomery said she is grateful that, even during a difficult year, families at St. Thomas More willingly step up to make life better for others. “This was just an amazing experience for all of us.”