By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Imagine having to decide between paying the rent or buying a doll or fire engine for your child for Christmas. Tough decision to make. For hundreds of families living in poverty in the Kansas City area, Christmas presents are simply not an option. But many of those families and seniors served by Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph will receive gifts and necessities this season thanks to Project Shining Star, the annual program to provide a happier Christmas to the poor.
At a table piled high with action figures, a little boy reached up for an Incredible Hulk mask. He put it on, pushed a button and the mask made a loud roar. The boy, his mother and older sister all burst out laughing. He had found his gift.
In Kansas City and surrounding Missouri counties, roughly 17 percent of the population lives in poverty. And, for children under 18, that rate is about 25 percent. Each year the number of people participating in Project Shining Star increases.
The first year, 2001, the project helped make Christmas brighter for several hundred families. Last year 1,000 people had a happier Christmas. Shining Star’s goal this year was to serve 1,700 people, a goal reachable only through donations from business and individual supporters. Families participating in case management programs were given “wish lists” to complete. Wish lists for both children and adults include “a need” and “a want.” Names, ages and gender are recorded and wish lists are divided between case workers and, as donated gifts are delivered, they are sorted and portioned out to the case workers to deliver. When an organization or individual in the community called to offer to adopt a child or senior for Christmas, a case worker was alerted. About 480 children’s and 550 senior’s wish lists were filled, along with another 202 bags for clients of senior nutrition centers.
Gifts and clothing are bagged so that gifts and clothing are age appropriate. Parents came to Catholic Charities Dec. 12 and 13 to pick up their gifts, or if they were unable to pick them up in person, case workers delivered the gifts, unwrapped. Parents received a roll of wrapping paper so that they could wrap the gifts for their children and take some ownership in the giving process.
Parents not enrolled in case management programs were able to “shop” for their children at Shining Star’s Christmas Store, which was open Dec. 12 and 13.
A father is shopping for his three children — a 14 year-old daughter and 9 year-old twins. He has a job, but his wife recently lost hers when she became ill. Providing for a family of five is tough; last month they got so far behind on utility bills that their lights and heat were about to be shut off. The family came to Catholic Charities for help.
They received assistance in bringing utility bills up to date, and groceries to feed the family until the father’s next paycheck. They also signed up for Christmas Shining Star.
“This is just what we needed, at just the right time,” the father, a big man with broad shoulder and a soft voice, said. “Not only are we dealing with my wife’s illness; last week she came home with one of our daughters and someone ran out the back door. He’d broken in and got away with what he could carry, even a couple of presents we’d been able to afford on our own!
“We’ve been able to take care of ourselves up to now. We asked for assistance one other time about 5 years ago. Since then we’ve made it work and we’ll make it work again. But for right now, it’s good to have Catholic Charities on our side.”
Many clients this year are the working poor. Catholic Charities expected to fill bags for about 700 kids at the Christmas Store, but when all the filled bags from Shining Star were counted, 2,000 people will have a happier Christmas this year!
A mother in her early 30s stood in the check-out line with an armful of toys. A big smile lit her face. She said she had been laid off from her job for almost a year and didn’t know how she was going to handle Christmas for her 6-year old. “Catholic Charities came at the right time, when I need it most.”
When offered additional services and programs, she commented that they might be a good way to start the new year.
A lot of comments and laughter were heard from parents, side-by-side with happy sighs and giggles from children, during shopping hours at the Christmas Store. Catholic Charities shared some they had heard. Parents could pick out three toys for each child. Volunteers served as “personal shoppers” to help parents choose gifts and carry them to the checkout lines. At check-out each parent or family received the gifts for their children, a roll of wrapping paper, a raffle entry for a bicycle or other large toy, and a toothbrush for each child.
A single father shopping for his daughters proudly looked over his choices. His 3-year-old runs the house these days, he says.
“She’s always in the kitchen, always pulling pots and pans out of the cabinets and banging them together.”
He had chosen a toy kitchen set from a table stacked with toddler toys, just for her.
“Now, she’ll have pots and pans of her own – maybe they won’t be quite so loud!” he said with a laugh. He paused, then with a wide smile, said, “I am so blessed, I am so happy to be able to give Christmas to my girls. It’s just me and them. I thought I wouldn’t have anything for them this year, then I was referred to Catholic Charities, and I’m so glad I found you guys.”
Lisa Tulp, Catholic Charities Communications Coordinator, told The Catholic Key. “These are the families of Catholic Charities. Not one of them is ‘typical.’ In just a few hours at Christmas Shining Star, we served single mothers, single fathers, husbands and wives shopping together for their kids, blended families, grandparents and guardians. Almost every shopper said Catholic Charities was there for them at just the right time…when they didn’t know where else to go.
“It’s a brave act to come forward and ask for assistance when times are tough. We’re grateful every day when someone chooses to come to us for help that can lead them out of poverty. Catholic Charities services are designed to transform lives and communities, but when we spend time with our clients, especially during Christmas Shining Star, we are transformed, too.”