The refrain of a 1966 Christmas song by Elvis Presley poses a familiar question: “Why can’t every day be like Christmas?”
The Holy Family Program at St. Agnes Parish in West Chester puts these words into action, not just at Christmas, but providing needed services year round.
While the borough of West Chester may give the impression of affluence, with its quaint coffee shops, restaurants and festively decorated store windows, there are many in the local community who need assistance just to meet the basic needs of everyday life.
Barbara Kirby is the director of St. Agnes Parish’s outreach services, which includes: a nurse’s clinic staffed by a medical director, seven nurse practitioners and 23 registered nurses; an educational support center specially geared toward teaching English to children of Spanish-speaking families in preparation for them to enter kindergarten; and the Dorothy Day Ministries Center (also called the St. Agnes Day Room), which provides the basic needs to local families in crisis, including daily hot meals.
The Holy Family Program is specifically associated with the Day Center.
“It is truly an amazing outpouring of caring and outreach to our neighbors in need,” said Kirby. “I like to refer (the program) as ‘The body of Christ taking care of the body of Christ’.”
This year the Holy Family Program celebrates 15 years of giving. It provides Christmas gifts for approximately 300 families, including 900 children annually. It started with people in the community writing down requests for needed items on scraps of paper, which would be fulfilled by parishioners and collected at the home of volunteers Jeff and Winnie Englebrecht.
Today, under the direction of Kim Johnson in coordination with Doug and Maria Weems from SS. Philip and James Parish in Exton, contributions from surrounding parishes are organized to reach large numbers of needy families.
The primary goal is to provide items that will make Christmas warm and safe for these families — items such as warm bedding, clothes, household items, cookware and gift cards from grocery stores. Toys are provided for children but not large items such as bicycles or televisions. This program is geared toward providing necessities.
“Sometimes, parishioners desire to donate larger items which don’t necessarily reflect the goal of our program, and we have to gently guide them elsewhere,” said Johnson.
The majority of families who receive services from the Dorothy Day Center are Hispanic, and an early problem was communication. Through the generous help of interpreters, the Holy Family Program really hustles. Families start signing up as early as September, and the giving tree is displayed in church two weekends prior to Thanksgiving.
The difference between this and other parish giving trees is that each star on the tree is not a general gift, but specific to the needs of a particular person. All stars taken to be fulfilled by parishioners are recorded and registered, so that nobody will be forgotten at collection and distribution time, which was Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13 and 14 this year.
“Kim runs a well-oiled machine, and I’m honored to be one of her soldiers,” said Eileen Breslin, who has volunteered with the Holy Family Program for the past 10 years. “God always provides, and my favorite example is when a particular young girl slipped through the cracks and was not shopped for, and shortly thereafter, a group of teenagers walked in with their gift, which just happened to be for a 4-year-old girl!”
She also emphasized that the program and the needs don’t cease on Dec. 26 – the need is year round.
Ellen Lyons is another volunteer who has worked with the program from the beginning. “I take part, both in working and donating, and one of my gifts of good fortune is to see the family I’ve helped,” she said. “They don’t know who I am, but I have the privilege of knowing who they are.”
Lyons also commented on how many young people, many of whom benefited from the program, return to give back.
“The Holy Family Program could not be a success without the help of untold volunteers from the St. Agnes Day Room, translators, the CYO members, the sixth grade confirmandi, and parishioners who donate gifts and time,” said Johnson. “The miracles they help provide and the families who once were in need and now return to donate display the true meaning of Christmas.”
Perhaps, as the song goes, every day can be just like Christmas.
George Gregory is a freelance writer and member of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, Coatesville.