December 14, 2018

Lasting gifts of Christmas: A sense of hope shines through for residents of Holy Family Shelter during season of giving

A small boy sits on the lap of Santa Claus during a Christmas party at Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis, where the staff and volunteers work hard to make Christmas special for homeless families. (Submitted photo)

A small boy sits on the lap of Santa Claus during a Christmas party at Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis, where the staff and volunteers work hard to make Christmas special for homeless families. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Brittany Nickerson knows that our most special Christmas gifts become etched in our memories.

The mother of two also knows there’s an added emotional power to these gifts when we share them with the people we love—and maybe even more so during a painful time in our lives.

As Christmas approached a year ago, Nickerson was enduring a “very humbling” and unsettling time in her life. She had lost her home to foreclosure, and she had nowhere to live with her son and her daughter. The reality of being homeless overwhelmed her.

“It was mostly a feeling of anxiety,” she says. “I didn’t want my kids to feel ashamed. My son was upset. I had more anxiety for my kids than for myself.”

In the midst of that turmoil, Nickerson made a desperate phone call to a place she had never heard of previously—the archdiocese’s Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis. Even when she was told there was a room for her family to stay, she didn’t know what to expect.

She especially didn’t expect the gifts that the Catholic Charities Indianapolis shelter started to provide for her family and the other 21 families who found a home there.

“After a couple of weeks, it was comfortable,” says the 38-year-old Nickerson. “Obviously, everyone here was in the same situation. So you have that support, and there were all these resources. And my children were able to stay in their schools and get bus transportation from here. That was awesome. We wanted to get back on our feet as soon as possible.”

A year later, she and her children stand firmly. She has a job, and she lives in an apartment with her daughter while her son is experiencing his first semester in college.

As she looks back on that Christmas a year ago, Nickerson believes that the best gift she received from the shelter was the gift of hope. It’s a gift she will never forget.

She also remembers a Christmas celebration that she and her children never thought possible.

Lasting gifts of Christmas

As Christmas approaches, volunteers arrive at the shelter to help the residents decorate it. Parish groups come to sing Christmas carols and to do arts‑and‑crafts with the children. Some families bring in meals, and one bakes and decorates Christmas cookies with the residents.

Then there is the Christmas Store that the shelter sets up, a store filled with age‑appropriate clothes and gifts that parents can pick out for their children—a store where children can also select gifts for their parents.

“On Christmas morning, they open their presents as a family,” says Bill Bickel, who oversees the shelter in his role as director of program evaluation and development for the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities. “Even if they move out before Christmas, we make sure they have presents. And if they come in shortly after Christmas, we make sure there are gifts for them, too. A lot of the families also go to religious services together on Christmas.”

Nickerson still cherishes that Christmas memory from a year ago.

“Our Christmas was great,” she says. “It was awesome to tell my children that even though we are homeless, we are going to have Christmas. Just the fact that we were able to celebrate, have gifts and have dinner together.”

Two other lasting gifts came from their time in the shelter.

“It was nice for my children to see there are people who are loving and caring to do this,” she says. “Hopefully, it will inspire them to do the same when they get older.”

The other gift means the most to this mother.

“We were in one room when we we’re here,” she says about her and her children. “We had to interact with one another. We actually became closer as a family.”

‘They’re always in my prayers’

Lasting gifts have also come to Theresa O’Brien in her four years of volunteering at Holy Family Shelter.

“I love what they do there,” says O’Brien, a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “The people who work there are very compassionate and committed to helping the residents better themselves.

“It’s sure made me appreciate the blessings I have—and to not take what I have for granted. The kids are too cute. And your heart breaks for them because they really don’t know what’s going on.”

One of her favorite parts of volunteering at the shelter is being involved in its Christmas Store, which is stocked with donated items that include books, puzzles, games, dolls, toys, clothes and even handmade wooden trains.

“It’s very heartwarming,” says the mother of three grown children. “First of all, they’re overwhelmed with all the items in there and how many items they’re allowed to pick. Every parent gets to pick out nine items for each child. In that moment, they feel they are shopping for their Christmas. It’s not us providing it for them. It gives them satisfaction to do that.”

Even when she’s with her own family celebrating Christmas, O’Brien says she thinks of the families at the shelter on that holy day.

“They’re always in my prayers and on my mind. I hope they’re getting the same joy out of giving their kids their gifts that I get out of giving gifts to my kids.”

An eye-opening connection

One memory connected to the Christmas season always stands out to Bickel from his 21 years of being involved with Holy Family Shelter.

The moment involves a 10-year-old boy shortly after he arrived at the shelter with his mother. Noticing a picture of Jesus, Mary and Joseph together on the wall near the shelter’s entrance, the boy said, “Look, Mom, we’re in good company. Here’s the first homeless family.”

“Often times, you’re not sure what children are aware of,” Bickel says. “It was such an eye opener to hear a child say that.”

Just as eye-opening are some of the statistics that he shares.

“We serve in excess of 300 families a year. Seventy-five percent of those 1,000 homeless people are children. Twenty-two families will go to bed here on Christmas Eve. And we serve about 50 families through the holidays.

“It’s a thankful time because these are families who would otherwise be staying with another family member, a friend or in the elements. At the same time, it’s sad that we haven’t made as much progress solving the problem of family homelessness.

“We really need to focus on completely alleviating family homelessness in Indianapolis. Human beings should not live like that, particularly children.”

‘We are all the same’

Holy Family Shelter does its part by offering services that include health care, job training and legal assistance. Life skill classes also focus on parenting, nutrition and budgeting.

Providing a sense of hope is intertwined in all the shelter’s efforts, including the celebration of Christmas.

“As the name Holy Family implies, we try to make it a very festive, hope-filled and family-oriented holiday environment,” Bickel says. “It helps that they see so many people other than the direct staff who are concerned about them. What’s also interesting is that former residents call to say, ‘I’d like to volunteer or financially support the work.’ ”

These offers of help touch Bickel, who says the shelter needs such generosity throughout the year to help families who suddenly become homeless.

“We are in crucial need of financial support to serve our homeless families not just during the Christmas holiday but all year long,” he says. “Family homelessness knows no season. As more and more homeless families look to us for help, we are dependent on the generosity of our community to serve them.”

That year-round generosity leads to one of Bickel’s favorite scenes at this time of year—watching the children at the shelter enjoy the Christmas festivities.

“You could take your own kids and put them in the middle of our families and you wouldn’t know who is homeless. The same is true of the kids’ reactions to seeing Santa Claus.

“We are all the same. The only difference is that these families don’t have a permanent night-time residence.”

That’s the gift that everyone who works and volunteers at the shelter wants to make a reality for these families, Bickel says.

A home of their own.

“We’re working very hard to make that happen for them.”

(Donations to Holy Family Shelter can be mailed to: Holy Family Shelter, 907 N. Holmes Ave., Indianapolis, IN 46222. Donations can also be made online on the shelter’s website,, and then clicking the “Give Now” button. To volunteer at the shelter, go on the shelter’s website and click on “How You Can Help.” Or call 317-635-7830 and ask for the volunteer coordinator.)

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