This Christmas season, the Ladies of Charity, a volunteer branch of Catholic Charities, is trying to ensure all children, regardless of their family's financial situation, will be able to have a merrier and warmer Christmas. The Ladies of Charity are participating in the Western New York Holiday Partnership, providing Christmas gifts and cold weather accessories for low-income children and teens.
According to Eileen Nowak, the director of the Parish Outreach and Advocacy Department of Catholic Charities of Buffalo, the Christmas gift program at Ladies of Charity has been in existence for decades. It began when the volunteer organization would hand out any toys, hats and mittens at the door of their outreach story in Buffalo, to anyone who would come by.
"What happened is they found people were coming to the door time and time again, the same people, so we decided we would keep a record of them," Nowak said. "I came along and we got working with the Toys for Tots program, and the News Neediest program (of The Buffalo News) and United Way. We all work together. We decided to create, after a few years of working together, a collaboration called the Western New York Holiday Partnership."
Today, the partnership consists of about 15 service organizations. In the spirit of the holidays, all of these groups work together to help serve poor Western New Yorkers during the Christmas season. It had always served anyone who came in as a result of Catholic Charities referrals, but since the holiday partnership came into existence several years ago, Catholic Charities has been able to extend its services to many people of a variety of faiths in the Buffalo area.
"People can come to Catholic Charities offices that are set up in their area," Nowak said. "They have to go according to zip code, and people can find out where they have to go to sign up for those by simply calling 211. They will tell them where they can go in their particular area. For example, if somebody belongs to one of our food pantries, and we have eight food pantries, they can go to one of those locations and sign up, because they would be regular pantry people and we would take care of through that program."
Catholic Charities offices are also open to "outside people" whom they do not normally serve. The program has expanded to serve close to 3,000 children and teens per year just through Catholic Charities. Nowak said the program is also one of the only ones in the holiday partnership that specifically gives gifts to children of all ages, including older teenagers up to and including the age of 19.
Gifts for older teens might include movie tickets, makeup, purses and jewelry, baseball caps or adult-sized sweatshirts. Catholic Charities makes every attempt to accommodate these teenagers, since the organization stresses providing an inclusive environment for older youth who likely still live at home. The older siblings would feel left out if the younger children received gifts and they did not, Nowak said.
"Every child receives a gift, a toy of some sort of substantial size, and they would also get books and puzzles," Nowak said. "Anything else that we might have as extra, we put as stocking stuffers. Every family gets a Christmas ornament and a card saying that this came from the Ladies of Charity of Catholic Charities, and we wish them well for their holiday. They come and sign up ahead of time."
As of the beginning of November, signups were just beginning at some Catholic Charities locations, with other organizations participating in the holiday partnership having different procedures. For those who do not know where they should go to sign up, they should call Catholic Charities' 211 hotline.
"The day that it ends at the end of the year, we're already starting for the following year, so it's a 24/7 production because there are so many people involved and so many areas," Nowak said. "We're one of the only groups within the partnership that covers all eight counties, so it's a little farther reaching."
Toys and gifts come in from various resources, including purchases Catholic Charities makes through monetary donations and other donations via the holiday partnership. If they do not have toys and gifts given to them, Nowak goes out and purchases toys. They are organized according to age and gender.
"Books have to be sorted out. I have a couple of retired schoolteachers, including Margie Pawlowski," Nowak said. "She's been plowing through these thousands and thousands of books we have."
Any books deemed inappropriate for children are donated to a thrift store.
Another regular volunteer, Ceil Borcz, has also overseen the volunteer production. Paid members of the Catholic Charities staff in Nowak's department, including Carolyn Kwiatkowski and Jennifer Scheibner, are instrumental in assisting with the collaboration and efforts.
"They keep track of what's coming in and what's going out, and deliveries to be made and so forth, to keep us on track," Nowak said. "That starts now, and I'm sending letters out to our staff letting them know that it's that time of year again, that they can make referrals and take referrals."
The system ensures that Catholic Charities is able to serve as many people as possible without any people unnecessarily taking advantage of the program's resources. Nowak said in her 25 years of working with the Ladies of Charity, she has found the experience very rewarding.
"I can't believe the commitment from the Ladies of Charity themselves, the organization, to make sure that this happens every year, that donations come in and the toys are separated, that they have the hats and the mittens and everything else," Nowak said.
Although an administrator, Nowak has still been able to see the results and reactions of people on the receiving end of the program.
"Part of my job is to be out on the streets in direct service to people and be involved," Nowak said. "I see them come in, and I've seen people cry and hug us because we gave them a bag of toys for their kids for Christmas. Those are the only toys their kids were going to get, because they couldn't afford to buy anything. If it was a choice between buying toys and putting gas in the car so they could get to work, or buying diapers for their child or having food on the table, what are you going to pick? You're not going to pick the toys."