ELKHART — Following the example of the church’s patron — St. Vincent de Paul in Elkhart has a Christmas Giving Program to help those in need.
St. Vincent de Paul’s pastor, Father Glenn Kohrman explained, “We solicit people who need help and then solicit people who are able to help.”
Parishioner Louaine Stephens is the coordinator of the program. Stephens said she began the program nine years ago, the first year she came to the parish.
“I was in a CRHP (Christ Renews His Parish) group and I saw a need — a definite need,” she said.
She asked the pastor at the time for his approval and he gave it. But she only had a month to pull it all together. She said the first year they assisted 25 people, last year around 600. Stephens said she puts out slips of paper — half in English, half in Spanish — stating, “I need help or I know someone who needs help” and on the bottom it states, “I would love to help a family in need.”
Stephens said her system starts by getting names, ages, gender and the need of those in need. Once she has four she moves on to those who want to help and finds out if they want to take care of an entire family or just one of the members. Sometimes donors will just give money and have her purchase the items.
“Sometimes we just have them buy SCRIP, because at times if it’s an older person they have to choose between food and medicine and we give them scrip,” she said.
Stephens has many stories to share of experiences over the years. Once she had a woman who had a breast removed and requested a special undergarment. Another year someone with cancer needed a wig and she made 30 calls to get the wig donated.
One person kept telling her “I don’t like Christmas!” and Stephens replied, “That’s fine, but do you want to donate a wig?” It took some arguing back and forth, but finally the wig was donated.
One year a teenager put out a request through the Internet and brought in so many donations the family needed a truck to take them home. Stephens said that family shared the surplus with their neighbors.
“One year a girl asked for a coat and I thought, ‘She really needs that coat.’” So rather than wait until pick-up day, she arranged to meet the girl and her mother at the church one morning.
“She showed up with a kitchen towel on her head for a hat, three sweaters for a coat and socks on her hands for mittens. It snowed that day so she really needed the coat and the mom was so thankful because she needed her towel back to dry dishes,” said Stephens.
Stephens said every year there are examples of God’s providence in how things just work out. Like the time someone came walking in with a Christmas tree asking, “Can you use this?” right after a family asked for one.
This year a family who’d lost everything needed a twin bed frame, and a business called saying they had a twin bed frame to donate. Another time a teenager who loved basketball was overjoyed when someone came in after a Christmas party with a brand new electronic basketball game to donate.
There is a set of railroad tracks by the church in Elkhart and Stephens shared that their priest suggested rather than be frustrated while waiting for trains, to say a prayer. Once while waiting for a train, Stephens noticed some homeless women nearby. So while waiting at the tracks she gave out three coats from the back of her vehicle.
Another time late donations came in with just the perfect-sized jackets for children that were there in need.
“No one can tell me God doesn’t run this — it’s too perfect,” she said.
Sometimes children call in asking for help for their families. Last year a boy called in asking for help for his sisters, mom and dad.
“What about you? You’re part of the family, aren’t you?” Stephens asked him. He said he didn’t need anything. So little by little she got the information out of him she needed to supply him with some Christmas gifts as well.
A family who was helped last year is holding a raffle this year to raise funds to help another family.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be, we help them and then they help others,” Stephens said.
One woman told Stephens, “You’re the only group that really cared about me so I want to help.”
Stephens said her phone starts ringing in October.
Father Kohrman said, “Stephens puts in well over 100 hours matching families. It’s amazing what she does — it truly is a saintly effort on her part.”
Stephens said sometimes she’s asked, “How do you know for sure if these are the ones that need help?” Her reply is, “We’re leaving it in God’s hands. We’re truly working with the grace of God.”
When asked if things are better this year both the pastor and Stephens said unfortunately they’re not. Last year they were able to help 125 families. This year they have 77 families.
“It’s not that the need is less but that people able to help is less. We’ve had to turn some people away,” Father Glenn said.
“Unfortunately it’s hard on both ends,” Stephens said. “But we’ll do it right up till the last minute — if we have extra we’ll call someone to come get it.”
She said the priests of the parish also take on families. “The priests have been very supportive — calls come in to them that they have to pass on to me. If the priests weren’t supportive, it wouldn’t work,” she said. “It’s a good church, I’m happy to be a part of it.”