Bringing Christmas cheer to families in need

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Liam von Harz, Landon Bell, Marie Stier and Audrey Aguirre from St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville assemble gift packages for families in need earlier this month.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Catholics in the Iowa City area helped make the holidays merrier for immigrant families living in disadvantaged mobile home communities and apartment complexes in Johnson County.

Youths from St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, Holy Family Parish of Richmond/Riverside/Well-man and St. James Parish in Washington met at Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville to buy gifts for families participating in the annual Holiday Celebration in honor of Blessed Stanley Rother.

Each youth brought at least $25 to spend. “We checked in with each other to see who was having luck finding the items they were searching for and what still needed to be purchased,” said Katie Schneider, a youth group assistant with Holy Family Parish. “The youth loved actually getting to shop for the items rather than just turning money in for someone else to shop.”

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After shopping, the group gathered to wrap and tag each gift. Altogether, the group adopted 40 families and purchased more than 175 gifts. Youths also purchased gifts for three families in need from the Coralville parish, said Michelle Montgomery, the parish’s youth minister.

The youths were surprised to see how many families requested necessities such as coats, books, shoes, shirts and pants, she said. “There were a few toys (on the lists) but for the most part it was just basic needs.” The youths looked for good deals so they could supply families with both. The experience was eye opening for many of the youth volunteers, including 11-year-old Cooper Schneider, a member of Holy Family Parish who donated some of his birthday money to the cause. “I guess I’m really lucky that I’ve never had to worry about choosing between a coat and a toy. I’m glad that I could help out.”

Laura Westemeyer, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Hills, founded the event more than 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 St. Joseph basement for crafts, live music, a meal and early Christmas presents. Over the years, the party expanded to include more families in need. The event changed to a drive-through format in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That format will continue to serve more families, she said. The event relies on local donors to adopt families and to donate food and other necessities.

On Dec. 18, 242 families received gifts during the drive-through event at Open Heartland in Iowa City. Families also received $100 in cash, toothbrushes, groceries, smoke alarms, car seats, stuffed animals, homemade cookies and fresh tamales. Westemeyer drove to Oklahoma City the week of the event to pick up Spanish-language prayer cards featuring Blessed Stanley Rother and beatification coins for the families. Blessed Rother, a priest of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese and the United States’ first martyr, was murdered in his Guatemalan rectory July 28, 1981.

Although the youth volunteers didn’t meet the families in person, they said they’re eager to shop again next year. “As a youth group leader, that’s exactly what you want to hear after an event,” Schneider said.


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