January 22, 2021

‘There are people out there who need help’

A girl’s birthday wish leads to special gift that helps to wrap a community in warmth

To celebrate her 12th birthday, Gracelyn Raelson asked her family, friends, classmates and fellow parish members to help her collect winter coats to distribute to people who needed one in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Her smile shows her joy about the 224 coats she collected. (Submitted photo)

To celebrate her 12th birthday, Gracelyn Raelson asked her family, friends, classmates and fellow parish members to help her collect winter coats to distribute to people who needed one in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Her smile shows her joy about the 224 coats she collected. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Having been born in December, Gracelyn Raelson decided to ask for something warm for her 12th birthday—something that would give her a toasty feeling through winter, something that would also add an extra sensation of warmth throughout the parish and the community that she calls home.

In advance of her recent birthday on Dec. 7, Gracelyn told her family, her friends and her classmates in the sixth grade at Holy Family School in New Albany that the only thing she wanted was a winter coat—more specifically, she wanted help in collecting 100 coats that could be given to children, women and men in their southern Indiana community who needed one to stay warm through the winter.

With everyone’s help, Gracelyn far surpassed her goal, ending up with 224 coats that have been distributed throughout southern Indiana and northern Kentucky, including to many people who are homeless. Yet as much as that number thrills Gracelyn, what means just as much to her is all the help she received.

For her, it’s not a story of how one child made a difference. It’s a story of how her family, her school and her parish make so much of a difference in her life that she wants to help others who aren’t as blessed as she is.

“I really am appreciating my community, my school, my family and friends because they see this as a problem, and they know there are people out there who need help,” Gracelyn says. “It makes me feel good because some people just need the extra warmth in their life.”

Volunteers and organizations that help the homeless and other people in need appreciate Gracelyn’s efforts.

“What a sweet young lady,” says David Schraffenberger, the point person for In Heaven’s Eyes, a ministry of Holy Family Parish that provides clothing, toiletries, blankets and food to individuals, families and charitable organizations in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. “We were getting kind of low on coats, and when we heard she was doing this, it was just terrific.

“The coats go to homeless people or anyone who just needs a coat and can’t afford it. They go to men, women and children. There’s a great need on both sides of the Ohio River. To see that spirit in a young girl like that, it can catch on fire with her friends, and it’s a help to the whole community.”

Gracelyn first embraced that need to help in the late part of 2019—just before she turned 11—when she heard a local radio station announce a winter coat drive.

“It was about three weeks before my birthday, and I thought, ‘What do I really want for my birthday? I really want people to be warm on my birthday.’

“I told my family. Two days before my birthday, we dropped off about 25 coats.”

When the radio station canceled the coat drive in late 2020 because of concerns about the COVID-19 crisis, Gracelyn decided to ramp up her coat-collecting efforts that had begun earlier in the year with a yard sale. With the help of her parents, Ryan and Sara, and her younger brothers Brennan and Sawyer, the family hauled in about $100 that Gracelyn used to buy some coats and a large bin to store them.

“Just because the radio station wasn’t doing it this year didn’t mean I couldn’t do it,” Gracelyn says. “People need the coats.”

She credits her initiative to the example of her parents, the lessons she learns at Holy Family School and the influence of In Heaven’s Eyes.

“Our religion class and our school focus a lot on helping others,” she says. “Our school supports the ministry that our parish does. We have about five food drives every year. They also teach about kindness and stuff. It makes me feel good because it makes me realize I’m not the only one who realizes there is work to be done.”

Gracelyn’s mother also points to the faith-filled impact of the school and the parish on her daughter.

“We’ve said for years now that Holy Family School has really been valuable for us as parents in cultivating a spirit of giving for our children,” Sara says.

“This is not something that Gracelyn has been prompted to do. I feel it comes second nature to her to think of other people, and a lot of that comes from Holy Family. She’s been surrounded by teachers and families that model for her what it means to live a Christ-like life.”

When Gracelyn is asked what she thinks God would say about her efforts, she says, “I think he’s proud.”

After a pause, she adds, “Next year, I’m going to go bigger than my goal was this year.” †

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