Parish brings Christmas to needy families

“Elf” Betty Ann Dolan helps Lissette Avellino shop for her children at the St. Stephen Christmas Store, Dec. 8. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

WINTER SPRINGS │ “I didn’t know how I was going to do Christmas this year. When she (Sheila Giacomo) told me she’d signed me up for Christmas, I was overjoyed. I cried,” said Lissette Avellino, the mother of one of more than 160 families selected to shop at the Christmas Store at St. Stephen Parish in Winter Springs on Dec. 8. For more than 15 years, the parish has greeted families in need with coffee, cookies and doughnuts while 240 volunteers with smiling faces help them with childcare, navigate the aisles of toys and get their gifts wrapped and loaded.

Advent can be a stressful time for these families as they struggle to pay bills and put food on the table. St. Stephen’s helps bring the joy of Christ back into the season by providing Christmas gifts and so much more. Avellino knows this better than most. The mother of two left her job in February to take care of her 2-year-old daughter who has special needs and whose legs are inverted inward 90 degrees, making it difficult to walk. A week later, her son, a Pinecrest Elementary student in Sanford, was diagnosed with leukemia. Reduced to one income and with her son in an out of the hospital, bills were mounting. Enter Sheila Giacomo, Pinecrest’s social worker who registered the Avellino family for St. Stephen’s Christmas Store.

Avellino admitted she was fighting tears all day as she made her way through the aisles with “elf” Betty Ann Dolan. Dolan is a veteran helper and former hospice nurse. She immediately connected to Avellino’s situation. “Of all the people who have come through the line, that I would get her gives me goosebumps,” shared Dolan. “Having my own knowledge of what she’s going through – trying to get help and pay the hospital bills… although her son isn’t in hospice, I can relate. God puts me where I’m supposed to be each and every time. I just follow the path. It’s wonderful.”

And that spirit runs through all the volunteers, from coordinators, to elves and porters who take wrapped gifts out to the clients’ cars.” Ethan is in his third year as a porter. The 9th grader said, “It’s really fun. I like doing it. You’re giving hope to people who really need it and it’s helping them find their path to get back on track.”

“Like anything, it started out small,” remembers Msgr. John Bluett, pastor of St. Stephen Parish. About 15 years ago, “We started buying gifts and distributing them to needy families. Now we have 10 schools we work with.” School guidance counselors and principals each select 10 needy families. In addition, the parish has a list of families they serve through their outreach program.

Weeks prior to the Christmas Store grand opening, parishioners bring gifts to the altar during Mass. Gifts are then brought to the gymnasium and volunteers set up. When they open for shopping, the gym is transformed into a department store, divided by sections and aisles.

Remaining gifts are purchased in bulk from monetary donations and bicycles are donated by parishioners Al and Linda Franks. The Franks are another example of Christmas Store volunteer spirit. The Franks’ Christmas Bike Program provided 65 bikes to St. Stephen Parish this year and have donated 6,500 bikes over the past 18 years. The idea came to Al and his wife after being in Walmart one night many years. The woman in front of them was on welfare and did not have enough money to pay for her child’s bicycle. The Franks’ pitched in what was needed. After talking about it on the ride home, Al told Linda, “We can do something about this.” Thus began their charity.

While parents are shopping, children have a chance to shop for their parents and have everything gift-wrapped. When the shopping spree is over, families may select from various gently used coats, sweaters and other items.

Why do they do it? Msgr. Bluett is quick to quote Matt. 25:40, “Whatever you do for the least of my people, (you did for me).” He adds, “These are people who have great needs. Our volunteers are happy to make them feel better.”

Kathy Barrett concurs. She spends most of Black Friday scouring for deals to stock the store. “You can’t help but be inspired by the people who come through here,” she said. “You get such a wide variety of veterans and people who would never find themselves in a place like this. They’re so humbled and gracious. It’s the best of humanity that comes out.”

Avellino could not agree more. “It’s so overwhelming and joyous to see how many people love other people so— reaching out with open arms, in pure love. It’s amazing.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic – December 10, 2018