Monsignor Farischon Hall and the street running past St. Joseph Church in Palmyra were bustling with activity three days before Christmas.
The parish hall was the staging area and distribution hub for the Palmyra Area Ministerial Alliance’s (PAMA) 2020 Christmas “Adopt a Child” Program.
Member congregations helped 44 local families, including 108 youngsters.
“We primarily focus on the children,” stated St. Joseph parishioner Cathy Fohey, the program’s 2019 and 2020 coordinator.
“We also do cleaning baskets for adults, personal-care items and things that are practical,” she said.
People throughout the area also donate money, which goes toward buying pantry staples to fill food baskets.
“It’s a really wonderful program,” said Mrs. Fohey, director of religious education and youth ministry for St. Joseph Parish.
Each of PAMA’s member congregations takes a turn hosting and coordinating the “Adopt a Child” program for two-year terms.
The second year of St. Joseph Parish’s term coincided with a deadly pandemic.
“At first, there were questions about whether we should even have it this year,” said Mrs. Fohey. “I said, ‘Let’s go for it! There are people who really need it.’”
She and co-coordinator Pam Hess planned and choreographed every step in the process.
They sent out applications and garnered publicity from local media.
Each member congregation “adopted” families, bought gifts and brought five or six volunteers to help sort everything out.
About 40 volunteers carried out the impressive task of sorting and distributing the gifts to the children and their families.
PAMA includes churches in the Palmyra, Philadelphia and Taylor/Maywood areas.
As in years past, families and children in need are “adopted” by churches and businesses to receive Christmas gifts through a process that maintains their anonymity.
Mrs. Fohey said the St. Joseph parishioners were particularly generous this year.
When a family came forward at the last minute to ask for help, parishioners quickly grabbed the extra ornaments off the giving tree and shopped for more gifts.
At noon on Dec. 22, representatives of each of the churches began bringing the wrapped gifts with numbers on them, corresponding to a family and its needs.
“The families are coded with numbers, so no one knows who they’re shopping for,” said Mrs. Fohey.
In the parish’s Farischon Hall, across the street from St. Joseph Church, organizers set up 44 tables — one for each “adopted” family.
“That’s where the gifts get dropped off,” said Mrs. Fohey.
A member of one of the churches orders food in bulk each year, based on the number of families and the amount of money collected.
Volunteers divided the pallets of food among the 44 tables.
At 3:30 p.m., Lane Street became a pick-up lane, with adults greeting the recipients and teens from St. Joseph and other congregations carrying the gifts and food out to the cars.
“We would usually have people come in and pick up their gifts, so we could greet them, wish them a Merry Christmas, see how they’re doing and find out if there’s anything else we can do for them,” said Mrs. Fohey.
“But with COVID, we decided to make those connections with them in their cars,” she said.
The families pulled into the church parking lot, where the young people retrieved their gifts, opened the car trunks and placed the gifts inside.
“We worked to keep it very private, so people wouldn’t see anyone they know,” said Mrs. Fohey.
Love thy neighbor
Mrs. Fohey said there were plenty of opportunities to stop and reflect in the midst of all the hustle and bustle.
Right before the gift recipients began arriving, the volunteers gathered to pray.
“We asked God to help us be joyful in our work and for the gifts these people receive to lead them closer to Christ,” she said.
At the end of the distribution, they gathered for a communal prayer of thanks and blessing.
Because the distribution takes place at the beginning of Christmas break, St. Joseph parishioner Andrea Barnes, who is a teacher in Hannibal, brings her sons to help out each year.
“I have a fifth-grader and a ninth-grader, and I want them to realize that they are blessed and they have a lot to be thankful for and that there are children who are not as fortunate as they are,” she stated.
“I want them to see that there is a need in this community and we can be the presence of Jesus to people,” she said.
Mrs. Barnes hopes the experience opened her sons’ eyes and helped them see what Jesus sees.
“We’re all human, and we all want to be loved, and Jesus tells us to love one another,” she said. “So it’s not just about us. And you find that sometimes, it’s more fun to give than to receive.”
She said Palmyra and the surrounding communities are small and are accustomed to stepping up to help whenever there’s a need — “whether they’re parishioners or not.”
“That’s what ties us together — a willingness to step up and help your neighbor,” she stated. “We are a part of the same community.”
Mrs. Fohey said God made Himself abundantly known throughout distribution day.
“He was everywhere — in the receivers, the givers, the workers, the ministers, the poor,” she said.
“When you look at someone’s eyes when they’re in need for this year and they have tears in their eyes and they’re overwhelmed, that’s where you see Jesus at that time,” she said.
She recalled how last year, a mother of five came to pick up her family’s gifts. She did not have a car and had no way to bring everything home.
“Every single volunteer stopped what we were doing, picked up her gifts and walked with her to her house,” said Mrs. Fohey.
“She stood inside her door, and we handed her gifts to her,” she recalled. “That was a moment of such glory. She and the workers and volunteers had tears in their eyes.”
Another local congregation will take the baton and coordinate the 2021 Christmas gift distribution.
“But our facility — the location and the way it’s set up works really well,” said Mrs. Fohey. “So we might continue to have the distribution center here, but under new leadership.”
The whole experience got Mrs. Barnes thinking about the Corporal Works of Mercy — “feeding the hungry and helping people in need, showing love to God and your neighbor, and treating people as you would want to be treated.”
“That is what the ‘Adopt a Child’ is,” she said.