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The Joy of Giving

by on December 04, 2013 6:40 AM

Christmas is a time of giving. It’s a time when we search for the perfect gifts for loved ones, when bundled-up bell-ringers collect donations on street corners, when people of many faiths focus on the universal gifts of life.

Across Centre County, many of our friends and neighbors find opportunities to offer special gifts to new friends, to strangers, and to people they most likely will never meet. Here are stories of just a few of the many ways we share the spirit of the holiday by giving to others in special ways.

Angels on a tree

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, pa- ishioners of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Bellefonte crowd around two Christmas trees, eagerly waiting their turn — not to receive gifts, but to give them. Each tree is decorated with paper angels, and each angel bears the first name and age of someone in need of a gift, along with an idea of what each would like.

“Every year, I think we have too many angels,” says Patty Correll, Giving Tree program coordinator. Eighteen years ago, the program started with 75 paper angels; now, there are 350. Parishioners joyfully take charge of buying the gifts on every single angel ornament. “I get calls from people saying, ‘I didn’t get to church on Sunday — do you have any angels left?’ ” Correll says. To find out who should be on Giving Tree angels, Correll’s team contacts children’s agencies, Centre Crest nursing home, and the Bellefonte and Bald Eagle school districts, as well as St. John’s own membership. They ask who could use some help this year at Christmas, and what is needed, trying to keep the requests on each paper angel to about $50. “The people who are buying things don’t have a lot of money either,” Correll says.

Requests vary widely: sheets and towels for teenagers transitioning from foster care to their first apartments, toys for young children, baby-care items for expectant mothers, grocery-store gift cards for families going through tough times. Once, a woman asked for a prosthetic leg (and someone offered to pay for it!).

Many parishioners search the trees for the same types of angels every year.

“Some people like to buy for babies,” Correll says. Others choose angels the same age as their own children. Still others always buy for women residents at Centre Crest. “Most people that take the angel buy everything on it,” Correll says. “The back of the church is just overflowing with gifts.

“People are so generous at Christmastime. It’s wonderful to see.”

Santa’s Workshop

Wrapping toys keeps many parents awake into the wee hours. Wrapping toys for more than 10,000 Centre County children keeps close to a thousand Toys for Tots volunteers busy. Additional volunteers put out more than 200 collection boxes, pick up toys, sort them for wrapping, and so much more.

Still, the bulk of the volunteers wrap toys. They wrap board games (easy), dolls (sometimes challenging), and basketballs (a job for expert wrappers). They sign up to wrap as Scout groups, as families, and as individuals who just want to do something nice for someone around the holidays. Many return year after year.

All this wrapping is a rarity in the nation- wide Toys for Tots program, run by the Marine Corps Reserve, says Gene Weller, Toys for Tots chairman for the Nittany Leathernecks Detachment of the Marine Corps League for more than 25 years.

“We’re able to do it through the generosity of the community,” he says.

Wrapping takes time, money, and physical space, all of which the community donates. It also takes organization — volunteers place stickers on the toys they wrap, indicating the type of gift and the appropriate age and gen- der of the recipient, so that organizations can match gifts with children.

Although Toys for Tots is in the public eye in December, it’s a year-round activity for Weller and the Nittany Leathernecks. There’s the after-action report and certificates of appreciation in January, and then a brief lull before the kickoff breakfast, when the campaign begins again. Area food banks provide the number of children they serve, including ages and genders, and Toys for Tots strives to provide four wrapped items and at least one stocking stuffer per child. Additional toys go to local agencies such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Centre County Women’s Resource Center for distribution at Christmas and as needed throughout the year, such as when a family’s home is destroyed by fire.

Centre County residents donate thousands of brand-new toys to the program, as well as an average $20,000 a year in vital cash contributions, which Weller’s crew uses for wholesale purchases of toys and wrapping paper, taking advantage of bulk prices.

“We receive that money without having to do any fundraisers,” Weller says. “The public has been so supportive.”

The gift of friendship

When Mohammad Fatemi came to the United States in the late 1970s from Iran, by chance he met a woman on the plane who offered to help him when he arrived in the country that would be his new home. That kind offer by a stranger is one reason Mohammad and Tamra Fatemi open their home and their lives to internationals, especially during the holidays, through Global Connections’ International Friendship Program.

The program pairs a local individual or family with an individual or family from another country, explains Tamra, who is originally from Evansville, Indiana, and is a program coordinator with Global Connections. Hosts don’t provide housing, but they do find ways to invite their new friends to share some of their favorite activities and events. That could mean sitting down to a meal, attending a football game, picking apples at an orchard, or celebrating a holiday together. “They really just want to experience the American lifestyle,” she says. Often the international participants are Penn State visiting scholars, faculty, or staff; others are refugees. The Fatemies have been local hosts for half a dozen years and currently are paired with people from Iran, Azerbaijan, and the Philippines.

Major American holidays can be a difficult time for internationals here, when residence halls close, classes are on break, and most students and many locals leave town, Tamra says. “It’s a really quiet time, especially if they don’t have a vehicle and can’t really travel,” she says. “They’re usually happy that anyone would invite them.”

The Fatemies usually invite their international friends to Thanksgiving dinner as well as a party the week before Christmas. The in- ternationals learn about American traditions, and the Fatemies and their children find out about traditions from other countries.

“We’re learning so much from them,” Tamra says. “You can see things in a different way if you’re showing them to an international for the first time, like building a snowman or having a snowball fight. We get as much out of it as they do.”

Stockings from home

By mid November, more than 2,000 Christmas stockings full of treats were on their way from Central Pennsylvania to US military members deployed around the world, thanks to Military Family Ministries (MFM) and their church, school, and community group partners.

“This is the third year for this project, and each year it gets a little bigger,” says Tracie Ciambotti of Bellwood, who cofounded MFM with Paula Parker of State College.

The two launched Military Family Ministries in 2010. Ciambotti’s son had enlisted in the Army and Parker’s daughter had joined the Marine Corps Reserves. Both young adults were deployed to Iraq within months of graduating from high school. “It was hands down the scariest moment in my life,” Ciambotti recalls.

With no large military installations in Central Pennsylvania, both women felt alone in their fears, until they found each other. They started MFM to help military members and their families, and efforts grew based on requests from service members. Projects now include sending care packages and thank you cards year-round — and stockings at Christmas.

Each stocking is stuffed full of items that deployed soldiers find hard to come by — things such as candy, lip balm, hand and foot warmers, toothpaste, hot chocolate packets, granola bars, beef jerky, and trail mix, along with a Christmas card from the person who put together the stocking, usually someone in a partner organization. Donations help cover the cost of postage to far-flung bases of operation.

Ciambotti points to an e-mail last winter from a Navy SEAL to show how much the stockings are appreciated. Christmas was approaching, the SEAL wrote, and his unit was deployed at a remote location with no running water, and what seemed like no chance of a holiday celebration. Then, on Christmas Eve, a helicopter dropped boxes that contained MFM stockings.

“E-mails like that make it all worthwhile,” Ciambotti says.

A warm place to sleep

As temperatures start dropping in the fall, Centre County churches take turns opening their doors overnight so homeless people can come in and sleep “Out of the Cold.”

Now in its third season, the program began in November 2011. Ruth Donahue, director of Interfaith Human Services, called a meeting of representatives from local congregations and community organizations to discuss what to do during freezing weather, when the Centre House and Centre County Women’s Resource Center emergency shelters are full and have to turn people away. The result was Out of the Cold: Centre County.

This year, 10 congregations are participating, each taking charge of a few weeks at a time, says Monica Ouellette, executive committee co-chair and pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in Boalsburg. The American Red Cross provides cots, the State College Food Bank provides food, and Interfaith Human Services provides blankets, and transports everything from one church to the next.

“It really is a community effort,” Ouellette says.

A host coordinator opens the church doors and sets everything up for the evening in a classroom, a fellowship hall, or a gym. Men and women have separate quarters, or at least a curtain to separate their sleeping areas. The program provides a snack, and volunteers often prepare a hot meal. Trained volunteers — at least one man and one woman — stay overnight. Guests arrive between 9 and 10 p.m., and must leave by 7 a.m. Some arrive by car, some by bus, and some walk. (A long-term program goal is to provide transportation, Ouellette says.)

Participants are screened through Community Help Centre. Last year, Out of the Cold served 70 different guests, including homeless veterans, mentally ill individuals, people new to the community, and those who simply had fallen on hard economic times. Some guests work but can’t afford permanent housing, according to Ouellette.

In 2013-14, the program runs from October 28 through April 27. The first year, the program closed for Christmas, but this year University Mennonite Church in State College will make sure people can come “Out of the Cold” during the holiday.

“We always seem to find someone who’s willing to do what’s needed,” Ouellette says. “It’s come together in a way that I’ve never, ever imagined.” 

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Tracey M. Dooms is a freelance writer in State College and a contributor to Town&Gown.
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