On Dec. 11 – Gaudete Sunday and a day of rejoicing – families young, old and in between answered the call sent out by St. Theresa Parish, Little Egg Harbor, to “share the giving” by delivering nearly 2,000 toys and other presents to the church on Radio Road.
And on that bright and shiny day, while hundreds of those who donated presents settled inside for Mass, a multigenerational team of volunteers bustled around the church’s large narthex. There, they created a “shopping experience” on toy laden tables so the parents of more than 400 area children could set their economic struggles on the back burner and just enjoy selecting Christmas gifts for their little ones from the amazing amalgamation.
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The families had all been recommended for the annual community-wide distribution on the basis of need by area non-profits, schools and houses of worship, said Cathy Mazanek, parish coordinator who was on hand with her husband Ray, parish secretary Evelyn Lavender, and Father K. Michael Lambeth, the pastor, overseeing the event.
Shopping by appointment starting at 3 p.m. on Dec. 11 and continuing through Dec. 13, the parents would be able to take their pick of Christmas goodies, ranging from IPods and computer games, to board games, Nerf Balls, crafts, toys for tots such as “Tommy the Turtle,” Barbie’s and movies, Sponge Bobs and Disney princesses galore, stocking stuffers, clothing and nine sparkling new bicycles all destined for waiting homes.
It would be up to the parents to select just the right gifts – up to three per child – that would brighten Christmas in their homes.
“The shopping works so well,” said Lavender. “I can guess what to give a five-year-old girl but the moms know!”
“It’s marvelous what everyone brings in,” said Cathy Manzanek, as she surveyed the bounty of presents which poured in mainly from parishioners but also from other houses of worship and organizations. “There’s even wrapping paper,” she said with a wide grin, pointing to rolls of festive paper lined up against one of the tables.
Ray Mazanek came up with the idea for “St. Theresa’s Sharing Program,” 15 years ago after making a home visit on behalf of the parish and realizing that the folks in the house were struggling with hard times. He said he’s constantly “captivated” by the response after all these years.
“People dig so deeply into the pockets for this,” he said. “It’s terrific.”
A high point of the distribution day, the Mazanek’s and Lavender said, is the parade of bicycles into the church nave led by Father Lambeth at the end of Mass. The bikes are purchased every year by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, they said.
And indeed, as the Mass came to an end and the bike parade began – with Father Lambeth leading the way – the nave rocked with applause, whistles, stomping of feet and cheers.
Father Lambeth got off the bike and took to the microphone to offer the annual accounting. “Here’s where we are,” he said, reading from his list. “We have 404 children and 1201 gifts right now with the gifts still pouring in. This will factor out to at least three gifts per child. We’re going to hit 2,000 gifts!
“This is not the fanciest parish,” he said, “you are ordinary working folks and your generosity is fantastic! I’ll ride a bike as long as it takes to get gifts to help these kids!”
As the bike riders zoomed out the church and the parishioners followed suit, Gloria Filler and Lottie Brezinski sat in their usual pews in the middle of the nave waiting for the church to empty out. “Oh, we make a regular habit of coming (to this Mass)” they said. “No matter what is asked for, everyone gives,” Filler said.
As the church emptied out, the volunteer team, including 12 members of “STAY” – St. Theresa’s Active Youth Ministry – continued to work setting up the presents. They wanted everything perfect before they left too, giving shoppers complete privacy.
Looking up from their work as they separated and stacked presents, STAY members Molly Burns, 15, and Sasha Dellazanna, 16, said there was nothing they’d rather be doing. “It is always so good to help. I did it last year. I think it’s a great way to celebrate Christmas by remembering people who need help,” Burns said.
As she neatly arranged piles of presents, Dellazanna called the experience a way of reflecting on “how fortunate I am. I know that I am extra lucky.”