December 3, 2021

‘They make Christmas special for us’

Christmas Store gives the gift of joy to families—and the volunteers who make it happen

Sharing smiles and gifts, Patti Jensen and Helen Burke are among the Red Aprons core group of volunteers at the Christmas Store, the annual effort by Catholic Charities Indianapolis to make the holy day extra special for families in need. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Sharing smiles and gifts, Patti Jensen and Helen Burke are among the Red Aprons core group of volunteers at the Christmas Store, the annual effort by Catholic Charities Indianapolis to make the holy day extra special for families in need. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

From her memory box at the Christmas Store, Stephanie Davis shares one of the best gifts she has ever received during this special season.

The unexpected gift came from a woman—a mother—who one year entered the Christmas Store, the annual effort by Catholic Charities Indianapolis to provide enough presents for economically struggling parents to make Christmas a warm and wonderful celebration for their children.

“We had a lady who kind of had a chip on her shoulder when she came in,” recalled Davis, the director of the Christmas Store and the Crisis Office for Catholic Charities Indianapolis. “You could tell she’s a person who struggles day to day. She thought she would be judged or criticized.

“When she left, she had tears in her eyes, knowing she could provide a great Christmas for her children. It’s nice to see them find that warm spirit within.”

As Davis shares that story, it’s clear that a similar warm spirit guides her in her 13th year of directing the Christmas Store—an archdiocesan outreach that has been touching lives at Christmas for 31 years.

For most of that time, the Christmas Store has been a setting where parents could shop for the gifts that they thought their children would like. Yet because of concerns related to COVID-19 last year and this year, the Christmas Store has become a drive-through operation with volunteers choosing the gifts based upon the parents’ recommendations.

This year, about 900 families will benefit from the Christmas Store, which opened on Nov. 11 and continues to Dec. 18.

“The favorite part for me is just knowing that families that are struggling day to day can have one special day together, and a child can get a special toy they would like to have,” Davis said. “On the paperwork we give them, we ask them about the children’s hobbies and interests—and their favorite colors—so they can get something they like.”

‘They make Christmas special for us’

Tanisha Coe says she and her children have been blessed by the Christmas Store for more than 15 years.

“I’m blind and disabled,” said the mother of two as she waited to receive her gifts. “This place is good for people who can’t afford things for Christmas. It’s been good for my family. I’ve been coming here for years, since my kids were babies.”

She returned to the Christmas Store this year for gifts for her 16-year-old daughter.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do for her,” said Coe, who also has a son who’s 20. “They make Christmas special for us. And they do it every year. I appreciate them so much.”

Drawing from the input of 85 social service agencies, the Christmas Store receives referrals of families from every kind of religious background.

“Only 12% are Catholic,” Davis said. “It really represents Catholic Charities—especially the giving and the support of the community.”

‘I get to be involved in the joy of 3,700 kids’

The support includes the brand-new gifts that many Catholics donate and the financial contributions that others make so the Christmas Store volunteers can buy presents. The volunteers are the heart of the program, including the 25 or so who work year-round on the effort—a group called the Red Aprons because of the signature aprons they wear.

Patti Jensen is one of that core group. A member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield, she describes the Christmas Store as her “passion.”

“I like to be around the people, to hear their stories,” she said. “They hug you. They cry. You never forget that.”

Jensen has her own unforgettable story of how she came to volunteer at the Christmas Store.

For 20 years, she was the caregiver for her husband Jay as multiple sclerosis kept taking its toll on him. While she considers that time together as a blessing in her life and their marriage of 51 years, she also needed time to regenerate her energy. That’s when her sister-in-law suggested she join the Red Aprons. And it continues to fill her life two years after her husband died.

“To do something like this, where you’re helping other people, really makes you feel good,” she said. “And just being around the other volunteers is a blessing. Everybody here has such a huge heart and a compassion for other people. That’s what brings me back. We make a difference, and this enriches my life. It’s a win-win situation.”

While the Red Aprons volunteer year-round, another 175 or so volunteers—many of them wearing Santa hats and ugly Christmas sweaters—help with the distribution of gifts to families during November and December, Davis said.

The scenes during those times always leave their impact on Davis, the mother of three grown children and the grandmother of three.

“It’s nice to see the volunteers come in, help people and almost feel like Santa Claus in a way,” she said. “And I get to be involved in the joy of 3,700 kids. It definitely puts a great spin on Christmas.”
 

(Monetary donations can be sent to the Christmas Store at 1400 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46202. Donations of gifts, which must be brand new, may be dropped off at the Xavier Building at 1435 N. Illinois St. in Indianapolis from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday through Thursday. For information about being a volunteer, contact Stephanie Davis at 317-236-1556.)

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