By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published December 12, 2019
ATLANTA—A warm smile and greeting from Jill Owen welcomed parishioners of St. Jude the Apostle Church as they dropped off boxes of wrapped Christmas gifts and bikes for Christmas Connections, also known as Adopt-A-Family, on Dec. 5.
Sponsored by Catholic Charities Atlanta, this initiative connects parishioners with families in need. This year, four churches in the Archdiocese of Atlanta bought Christmas gifts for more than 1,000 families.
Owen and her husband, Jim, have been leading Christmas Connections at St. Jude the Apostle for nearly 15 years. The couple first got involved when Tom Bickes, a friend and leader of the same program at St. Brigid Church in Johns Creek, invited them to start it up at their parish. The first year, they helped about 130 families, explained Jill.
Even though the first few years were challenging to get volunteers as they were raising awareness, many people now expect the program every year and look forward to it.
“It’s been a great tradition here at the church,” she said.
Members of the Men’s Club greeted people as they dropped off donations and helped to load boxes of gifts and bikes into the truck. Once everything was loaded, gifts were dropped off to one of six locations on Dec. 7 for families in need to pick up presents.
Jill meets some of the families face-to-face when they are unloading gifts.
“They’re all very grateful” and it is cute to see the kids, she said.
The work for the initiative starts in the summer, with most receiving families being clients of Catholic Charities. Approximately 92% of the families are low income with 61% living in poverty.
Once a list of families is gathered, Catholic Charities reaches out to parishes, asking them how many families they feel can be supported by the church community. Each church location then receives a list of families and must match them to families or ministries in the parish for donations.
The list includes the number of people in the family, sizes for clothes and a short list of gift ideas. Other family needs are also included, such as bed sheets or towels.
Hundreds of volunteers were divided between six locations to deliver gifts Dec. 7 from Cedartown to Forest Park. One of the locations was the new Catholic Charities warehouse in Doraville, which included a Santa Claus visit and activities for kids.
“It is my favorite, favorite time of year,” said Stephanie Ungashick, senior director of mission advancement for Catholic Charities Atlanta. This is her ninth year working with the initiative.
“When you see those trucks just load gift after gift, bike after bike—and when you see all that’s unloaded for the clients, it’s really special,” she said.
A tradition through the generations
Gene Rice has been involved with Christmas Connections for more than 30 years. His grandparents helped Catholic Charities get the program started locally, and his parents volunteered with a Christmas Connections effort at St. Andrew Church in Roswell. His uncle, Tom Bickes, is involved with the program at St. Brigid.
For him, Christmas Connections was part of the family Christmas traditions. After returning home from college and getting married, he and his wife, Isabel, started the program at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta 12 years ago.
His favorite part of the experience is delivery day, when parishioners and community members drop off gifts. He enjoys seeing friends and family, especially those who participate from the neighborhood.
“It’s really developed into this great program that grants access to people in different places,” said Rice.
Christmas Connections has expanded this year, adding St. Joseph Church in Marietta and St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell.
St. Joseph was part of a special partnership, donating Christmas gifts for 16 families involved in Safe Passages for Unaccompanied Children Services. This service provided by Catholic Charities ensures “that children are released into a safe environment while they are in legal immigration removal proceedings.”
Rice believes there is a place for everyone in the Christmas Connections program. The leaders at the Cathedral of Christ the King are able to match parishioners who travel a lot and are able to make financial donations with recent college students and graduates tapped to shop for the gifts. Children help on delivery day and can go shopping with their families.
“There’s a place for everybody,” said Rice.
The Cathedral of Christ the King and surrounding community is “really an inspiration and great to be a part of,” he added.
Jill Owen enjoys the season’s spirit of giving, and wants all who participate to have a “joyful experience.” Jim Owen believes participating in Christmas Connections is a rewarding experience.
There is a “joy in knowing you are helping families,” he said.
To learn more, watch this Christmas Connections video.