By Erik Zygmont
ABERDEEN – Every year, Mary Ellen Dunne, co-coordinator of the Christmas outreach program at St. Joan of Arc Parish, looks forward to phoning about 40 disadvantaged families involved with Harford County Early Head Start, a program of Catholic Charities of Baltimore.
“We are so happy to be able to offer you a basket of food and some small gifts for your children,” says Dunne, 69, who with Shirley Kern coordinates the Christmas outreach.
Most of the women who answer the phone – “There are very few families with husbands involved,” Dunne said – gladly accept the offer.
“A lot of them tell me, ‘We wouldn’t have a Christmas at all if not for you,’ ” she said.
“A few say, ‘No, give it to somebody else, who needs it.’ ”
Clients are asked for input on what gifts might specifically benefit their families.
“One year a lady asked for some pots and pans just so she could have some cooking stuff,” Dunne said.
Others ask for items such as sports equipment or books for their children, and many request gift cards.
“In sort of a dignified way,” Dunne said, “it lets people have a choice when most of the time they don’t.”
After Thanksgiving, the requests are noted on ornaments that hang from a giving tree in the church narthex. Parishioners take an ornament, purchase and wrap the gifts listed, and drop them off at the parish. Families will pick up their food and gifts, which fill the entire upper floor of the parish meeting house, Dec. 15.
Last Christmas, the outreach served 31 adults and 63 children, according to Robin Carnivale, the parish business manager.
The program is a seasonal component of St. Joan of Arc’s year-round Good Samaritan Ministry, a 40-volunteer operation which assists with evictions, turn-off notices and prescription costs. Carnivale said in fiscal year 2015, the ministry served 445 clients.
“The majority are not our parishioners,” she said.
The Good Samaritan Ministry also has a food pantry – stocked by parishioners, the Maryland Food Bank and donations from grocery stores – which that same year served 811 families, Carnivale said.
Parishioner David Dulik, who interviews potential clients, said Aberdeen has a large homeless population.
Dunne said that seeing some of the large, late utility and rent bills that families deal with has opened her eyes.
“I would be so stressed that I can’t even think about it,” she said.