Gift Cards Galore Help the Needy at Christmas
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
January 28, 2021
DIOCESE—In normal years, Catholic Charities in the Rockford Diocese received donated gifts and food from parishes, schools and other organizations to give to people in need at the holidays. In-person parties and other gatherings for recipients were part of the happy celebrations.
But this year the pandemic complicated those usual collections, gatherings and distributions.
With agreement from Catholic Charities administrators and program directors, former Charities’ director Patrick Winn sent a letter to parishes explaining that the focus for the 2020 holidays would be to provide gift cards to needy households and families.
The response from parishes and other groups was “tremendous,” current Catholic Charities director, Cathy Weightman-Moore, says. 
The 520 cards collected had a total value of $16,000.  Most were for the requested amount of $25 each with some other amounts also donated. The majority of the cards were for groceries, with some for gas, restaurants and specialty stores.
The cards, along with other donated gifts, were given to the individuals, children, and families served by Catholic Charities’ Pregnancy and Parenting program; and also for emergency services and for those served by St. Elizabeth Catholic Community Center programs. 
“Due to the generosity of the donors, we were able to provide cards above the amounts given in previous years to help (those in need) with additional expenses, often due to job losses and less income experienced because of the pandemic,” Weightman-Moore says.
Each office and program of Catholic Charities adapted its annual holiday events to meet safety protocols.
For example, St. Elizabeth Center usually hosts a “Snowflake Shop” where parents can come and choose gifts for their children. This year, the center again had families sign up and provide the names and ages of their children. Wrapped, donated toys filled bags that were prepared and labelled with each family’s registered number. Families drove up and, while remaining in their cars, were given boxes of candy and the bags of age-appropriate gifts for their children. Over 400 children received gifts.
Terri Hill, program director at St. Elizabeth’s, describes the distribution. Staff and volunteers used walkie-talkies to call into the St. Elizabeth gym when, for example, “family 87” drove up, she says. Inside volunteers brought that family’s items out. A number of teddy bears donated by the Ice Hogs hockey team were happily added in for the youngsters, and child-sized masks were given also. 
“We had two Santas and two dogs,” a volunteer brought and played Christmas music outside, and one church decorated the parking lot, Hill says, crediting volunteers and donations from Heartland Community Church of Rockford for making the event happen this year.
Gift cards were not requested by the Refugee Resettlement Services Office, says Janet Biljeskovic, program director. Although the annual Christmas party for refugees hosted by St. Bernadette Parish could not be held, the parish contributed gifts for around 50 refugee children. Those were distributed directly to families by office staff, she says. 
Additionally, the Knights of Columbus held a coat collection like they do every year for the refugees —many of whom come from warmer climates. But instead of the usual gathering of refugees for a coat distribution at the refugee office, the staff delivered the coats directly to families along with hats and gloves made by women at Holy Family Parish. 
Holy Family also collected cleaning supplies, paper products and food items that were picked up by staff and distributed to refugee families.
A few extra items that were collected, Biljeskovic says, will be available for new refugees in the days ahead.
The abundance of gift cards and other donations provides a happy start for Weightman-Moore as she settles into her new responsibilities.
“We couldn’t do things the way we did before COVID,” she says, “but, it’s so great to see those connections, and people who are so supportive of the people we serve.”
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