By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published January 7, 2010
Many adults still cherish childhood memories of waking up on Christmas to find an array of colorfully wrapped gifts beneath an elaborate tree. This Advent, young adults in the archdiocese came together for the sixth year in hopes of creating Christmas memories for children who otherwise would not have that experience or even the essentials.
The project is called Soñar Despiertos, and it is aimed at providing, packing and delivering Christmas gifts and practical household items to families in one specific community in North Georgia each year.
Founded by Maria Naranjo and Jorge Sosa in 2004, Soñar Despiertos, or “Dreaming Awake,” is a collaborative effort among a core group of leaders including youth and young adult groups from various churches and college students.
Naranjo, a parishioner of St. Jude Church, moved to Atlanta in 1994 and became a part of the parish Life Teen program. She said this is where her faith truly began to blossom. She also became involved with a Hispanic young adult ministry and through it went on mission trips to Colombia and Peru, South America, to help those in need.
The Soñar Despiertos project brought that kind of ministry back home to the states. It began when Naranjo and some friends wanted to adopt a family for Christmas. They got a lead on a family in Colony South, a trailer park community in Forest Park, and when they visited the community they felt called to aid all of the families there.
“The need went beyond the one family,” said Naranjo. “We felt it was our calling.”
Since the first year, Soñar Despiertos has brought Christmas to struggling communities in Athens, Dalton and Marietta, in addition to Forest Park.
This year they returned to the Colony South community, which continues to struggle. Many are living there without even the bare necessities, Naranjo said. Many residents of the primarily Mexican community work at temporary construction or custodial jobs and are constantly looking for more permanent employment. Naranjo said they have encountered families whose husbands and fathers are in jail or in the process of being deported.
“It is a very humble community,” she said.
“I believe, as Jesus taught us, that we are one family,” she said. “To love our neighbor is one of the most important commandments. … Jesus said that where we feed the hungry or clothe the naked, we are doing that for him. My faith is grounded upon that.”
Soñar Despiertos is a multi-faceted project, according to Naranjo. Those involved survey different communities throughout the area and decide which would be the best to help. As part of the process, they find out how many trailers there are, how many people live in each and their names, ages, gender and immediate needs.
Then a location is set where volunteers can drop off items, including clothes, blankets, jackets, space heaters and toys, among other things. This Christmas the St. Joseph Young Adult Group from Dalton and the Corunum group from Our Lady of the Americas Mission in Lilburn led the collection efforts.
On Dec. 6, the Corunum group participated in the Milla de Juguetes, in which they collected items and lined them along the sidewalk at church hoping to create a mile of toys in order to encourage and challenge those participating in the project. The following week, the Dalton young adult group did the same thing at their parish, with several volunteers then driving the goods back to the Lilburn mission.
The week prior to Christmas, all volunteers went to Our Lady of the Americas to participate in what Naranjo calls the most stressful part of the project: packing.
“The hardest part of the project is the couple of days before delivery when we pack and wrap,” she said.
Three full days were scheduled for packing. The volunteers typically try to pack age- and gender-specific items together, but sometimes, when the communities are so large, they pack more generic boxes with items anyone can use. There are 200 families with more than 350 children living in Colony South.
The final stage of the project is the “Dia de Alegria” or “Day of Joy,” when the volunteers take the gifts to the community. It is a day of celebration and fun with games, face painting, food and sometimes even a visit from old St. Nick himself.
The volunteers also want to share their faith and so they incorporate a spiritual element into the “Dia de Alegria.” Every year Mass is celebrated following lunch and before the distribution of gifts, simply as a reminder of what makes this season of the year special.
But still, the looks on the faces of children when they receive something for Christmas is not easily forgotten.
“My personal joy is bringing Christmas to this community,” Naranjo said. “That is what the Christmas spirit is all about: bringing joy to every child. This is a time to give rather than receive. (Soñar Despiertos) enables a lot of people to give that Christmas spirit.”
Naranjo said that every year is different since the roster of volunteers and the community chosen to receive the aid change. This year a group of teenagers from Our Lady of the Americas Mission stood out to Naranjo as one of the most enthusiastic groups that participated.
“Their energy was unreal,” she said. “The kids were very excited and when we got to the park, they truly became leaders.”
Volunteers represent all ages and ethnicities. And ever since that first year, which Naranjo described as her favorite so far, the Soñar Despiertos project has been a great success.
“It’s beautiful to see how this project brings people together,” said Naranjo. “The amount of support and volunteers is sometimes more powerful than giving the gifts.”
Soñar Despiertos has a Facebook page.