By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — For many, it was just another Sunday afternoon — a group of like-minded Patriots fans gathered together, gazing at the TV to watch Tom Brady and his bunch handily secure another win over the Los Angeles Rams.
But this group of more than a dozen volunteers had another reason for huddling inside the back conference rooms of the Catholic Social Services’ main office on Bay Street in Fall River. They were all there to sort, categorize and gift-wrap an abundance of donations — from toys to clothing to winter jackets — for CSS’ annual Gift of Giving Program.
And to watch a little football via the flat-screen TV on the far wall that had just recently been tuned into the game thanks to a couple of amateur techies and a borrowed antenna.
“We’re Patriots fans, so this is really a sacrifice for us,” joked Arlene McNamee, CEO of Catholic Social Services.
Adding that the Gift of Giving Program has been a staple of CSS for the past 19 years now — 13 of which have been spent at the same Bay Street location — McNamee said the donations come in from various parishes and Catholic schools with “Giving Trees” and even a few non-diocesan sites such as the New Bedford Country Club and a public preschool.
“This group just comes,” she said of the members who were busy organizing toys by age group and gathering clothing by sizes for distribution. “They get the calendar of when we’ll be here and they just show up.”
In addition to the group scurrying around inside CSS, McNamee said there were another four truck drivers out picking up the collected donations from all corners of the diocese to deliver them to Fall River for sorting and wrapping.
This process will continue Monday through Thursday during the week and every Sunday until December 18, according to a detailed calendar supplied to volunteers.
“Next Sunday will be enormous,” McNamee said. “We’ve all been working together for a long time — it’s more like a reunion for us.”
According to Mary Lou Frias, the longtime coordinator of the Gift of Giving Program, their purpose is to help facilitate the charitable effort with the various parishes and groups within the Fall River Diocese.
“We can give them support to any degree,” Frias said. “We can give them the names of families, we can give them request forms, we can give them labels, and we can give them the gift tags pre-made — which is mostly what we do. In a couple of situations, we actually go in and even set up the (Giving) Trees for them.”
Having been involved with the program pretty much since its inception, Frias recalled starting on Slade Street, at the former Diocesan Department of Social Services building, where they worked out of a much smaller conference room.
“I think we had nine parishes that first year,” she said. “Then we went from there to St. Patrick’s Convent next door just before it was demolished. Then we went to the Donovan House before it was converted into housing. We also worked in the school building (across the street from St. Mary’s Cathedral) for a couple of years in one of the classrooms. And now we’ve been here for the last 13 years.”
Over the years, the program has continued to expand and the number of volunteers has increased — but so has the need.
“Sometimes the poverty seems to move the project,” Frias said. “When we were at the St. Patrick’s Convent, the floors were dirt in the basement where we worked. Some of the men who worked for CSS would have to lay down tarps because if anything dropped on the floor and got dirty, we couldn’t give it away. So we went from a pretty meager space to this.”
Frias said in those early days it was easy for her to get anxious that things “wouldn’t work out right,” but she always had faith that God and her fellow volunteers would provide.
“Every Christmas seems to have its own story,” she said. “One year at St. Mary’s we were short size 14, and then somebody knocked on the door and a young person came up to me and said: ‘My boss said to bring you these.’ We hadn’t asked anybody but we received six Hefty bags filled with brand-new, sized 14 jeans. Something like that just gives you a chill up your spine. Every year there seems to be a story like that.”
Noting that many parishes and diocesan groups do their own charitable drives around Christmas — and some like St. Mary’s in South Dartmouth even collect donations year-round — Frias said CSS is only looking to support those that don’t have something already in place.
“People sometimes apologize to us, but we’re just a mechanism for giving, we’re not trying to take over what they’re doing,” she said. “We’re just looking to augment; if they don’t have a place for (items) to go, we can help. Because the social workers here during the year know when people (come) from one of the permanent shelters who have transitioned out, they have nothing. They have a Hefty bag and that’s it. All of their worldly possessions are in one bag.”
That’s why a big component of the CSS program also concentrates on new clothing of all styles and sizes. Inside the middle of three large meeting rooms at the Bay Street facility, volunteer Gerri Hanson has bundled outfits by size and matching pairs, often bundling them with elastics to keep them together.
“We managed to organize everything,” Hanson said. “Two worked on one side, and two worked on the other side. Once we had that done, then we went and did the coats. When the coats were done, the other two (volunteers) stayed here and we each took a toy room. In between, I went and straightened out the other room.”
“With toys, you don’t have to worry about size, but with clothes you have to be organized,” Frias added.
Now in her fifth year as a CSS volunteer, Hanson admits she does “a little bit of everything” and the experience has been “very rewarding.”
For her, one of the most uplifting things has been to see a family who benefitted from the program several years earlier coming back to volunteer, now that they have permanently established themselves.
“They are raising their families and they bring back their kids to volunteer,” Hanson said. “It’s a way of giving back for the help they received. It says a lot that some families would want to come back and help out.”
Volunteer Cathy Edington, a 17-year veteran of the Gift of Giving Program, said this is what Christmas is all about.
“This is Christmas to me,” she said. “It’s not Christmas until I come here and start volunteering and wrapping gifts. It all started with my kids and their CCD class and now this year we’ve got a whole new group of CCD kids coming to help from my parish, so it continues.”
Admitting that she considers herself “very blessed,” Edington feels it’s important to somehow “pay it forward.”
“You can’t take it with you,” she said. “I think we all should be doing it, and we certainly don’t do enough of it during the year, so this is a way to put in not just the money, but also the time. For me, the time is always very hard to find, given our work schedule. Even though it’s the craziest time of the year, it’s still important to find the time to fit it in. It’s a busy time, but it’s all good — we’ll sleep in January.”
First-time volunteers Al and Elaine Bento from St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Swansea said they’ve volunteered with many similar charities, including the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and they decided to get involved after seeing a notice in their parish bulletin.
“We’ve got a large family but we’re fortunate we have enough to provide for their needs,” Elaine said. “There are many people out there who are struggling and they just can’t do it. So it’s wonderful to have places like this that do it for them. I’ve always thought if you’re fortunate enough to get what you need, then the overflow should go to those who don’t have it.”
For Dennis Canulla, a CSS employee and parishioner at Holy Name Parish in Fall River, the concept of the program is simple.
“People who don’t know you take these ornaments off the (Giving Trees) and go out and buy a gift for you, and we give children a merry Christmas,” he said. “They’ll never see or meet these people, and that’s what makes it beautiful. I don’t know how we do it some years, but that’s the grace of God right there.”
Although she’s been designated as the coordinator for the Gift of Giving Program, Frias credits the contributions of her devoted volunteers for keeping it alive for nearly 20 years now.
“I’d say there are hundreds of volunteers by the time we’re done,” Frias said. “No one really owns it, CSS just hosts it; but it really has taken on a life of its own. People bring bikes and they bring whatever their participation level is and they own it. For me, that’s the best part. Seeing how it just keeps going. I like to think it’s like a pendulum and once you start it, it keeps moving.”
For more information about CSS’ Gift of Giving Program or to volunteer, call 508-878-7588.