“It’s a lot of work, but it wouldn’t feel like Christmas if I weren’t doing it.”
For about 40 years, Cheryl Hayes and two other women have been coordinating the annual “Adopt-A-Child” Christmas program for children in need in Knox County.
“I think we get a lot more back than we give,” said Mrs. Hayes, a member of St. Joseph parish in Edina and the Jefferson City diocese’s recipient of the Missouri Catholic Conference’s 2018 Citizen Recognition Award.
The women, who are members of three different Christian congregations, work with people throughout the community to gather clothes, toys, blankets and food to give to children in need.
“We have a lot of low-income families in Knox and Schuyler Counties,” Mrs. Hayes noted.
Usually about 100 children get signed up for the program each year.
There were 115 last year. Now it’s up to 123.
Donations from local individuals, businesses, churches and schools pay for the gifts.
“Some people come up and hand us $50 or $100,” said Mrs. Hayes. “I just had someone hand us $500.”
One woman donated two new, hand-quilted blankets to give to children in need.
“That’s kind of the way it goes,” said Mrs. Hayes. “It’s a small community and people do hear a lot more about these kinds of things.”
The mission of the Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC), public policy agency for the state’s four Roman Catholic dioceses, is to promote the common good in the state, national and global community.
Each year at its Annual Assembly in Jefferson City, the MCC presents a Citizen Recognition Award to a Catholic citizen, couple or group from each diocese who helps to advance that goal.
By “giving of themselves to improve the lives of others,” the honorees “exemplify good citizenship in promoting Catholic values in the public policy arena and in their local communities and parishes,” the MCC stated.
Father Colin Franklin, pastor of St. Joseph parish in Edina and St. Aloysius mission parish in Baring, and Carolyn Snelling nominated Mrs. Hayes for this year’s award.
She at first thought it was a robo-call or a joke when MCC administrative assistant Cindy Evers left her a phone message, inviting her and her family to the MCC Annual Assembly in October to accept the award.
“I called Fr. Franklin and said, ‘Is this legit? Because I’m totally not believing any of this,’” she said.
He assured her that the award was not only on the level but also well deserved.
Mrs. Hayes and a delegation from her family planned to attend, but a medical emergency prevented them from going.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, executive secretary to the MCC Board of Directors, spoke at the Assembly of her credentials.
“She is an excellent example of a devout Catholic woman, wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother,” he stated. “By her actions in the community, everyone she meets knows she is of the Catholic faith.”
He got to present the award to her in person on Nov. 8 when he traveled to Edina to administer the sacrament of confirmation.
Snowy weather that evening made traveling difficult, but everything worked out, she said.
“Brought up that way”
Mrs. Hayes said being Catholic isn’t just a big part of her life, “it IS my life!”
“It’s everything to me,” she said. “I’ve had so many different things happen in my life. If it weren’t for my faith, I wouldn’t be able to get through a day.”
Her reverence and spirit of cooperation extend to other Christian communities near her home in northeastern Missouri.
“I was brought up that way,” she said.
Her father’s family belonged to a little United Church of Christ congregation in the country.
“Whenever I went to visit my aunts and uncles, that was where we went to church,” she said.
But St. Aloysius Church in Baring was where she first came to know God, so it’s where she felt most at home.
That spiritual attraction stayed with her when she and her husband Larry got married 50 years ago, moved to nearby Edina and became members of St. Joseph parish.
They have three adult children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Hayes has been the director of the St. Joseph Retreat Center at the parish for 15 years. She stays involved in the parish, serving on various boards and committees, helping in various liturgical roles at Mass, serving as the point of contact for the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society conference, and rounding up support for “Adopt-A-Child” and other projects for the community.
“I hope I’m representing the Catholic Church well, because I belong to lots of other things in the community that aren’t just Catholic,” she said.
Being Catholic has a profound effect on her approach to being an American.
“Without that, I really am nothing,” she said. “I think everyone I work with throughout this community knows that.”
The needs remain
Mrs. Hayes describes herself as “an old social worker at heart.”
She and the other two women — Karen Hall and Charlotte Parrish — used to work for the Missouri Department of Social Services.
She spent two years as a caseworker in the Children’s Division and then had to switch to the Division of Aging.
“I didn’t like having to remove kids from their home,” she said. “I wanted to bring them all home with me.”
The Christmas gift program started out as a consortium of local agencies, including the Department of Social Services, in the 1970s.
“We retired from there, and the group kind of disbanded,” said Mrs. Hayes. “But the needs are still there, so we kept it going.”
Two of the women live in Knox County, the other in neighboring Lewis County.
Each year, they get started around the first week of October, signing up families, churches and school groups to pay for or buy the gifts and locating children to receive them.
“We don’t give out names, but we give out ages and clothing sizes so that each child gets one set of clothing and a toy,” said Mrs. Hayes.
This year, one school group is helping pay for food, and another is buying mittens.
Churches collect blankets throughout the year.
“O come, little children”
The women go shopping in December for what’s still needed, then distribute the gifts at the St. Joseph Retreat Center and the Edina United Methodist Church.
“All the work that you put into it — seeing just one of those faces makes it all worth it,” said Mrs. Hayes.
It’s something they want to share.
Mrs. Hayes and her friends are helping a handful of women who work for the Knox County Health Department and several others who belong to St. Joseph parish learn how to run the Adopt-A-Child program.
“One of these days, we’ll pull back and some others will step up,” she said. “That’s what we’re hoping.”