By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Retired teachers. National Honor Society members. CYO teammates. Grandmothers, teenagers, dads and young professionals. Young and old, city dwellers and suburbanites, they came together last weekend for a common purpose: bringing some Christmas cheer to clients of the St. Lucy’s food pantry.
On Dec. 10, St. Lucy’s Church on Syracuse’s Near West Side held its annual Food Pantry Christmas Gift-Giving day in the church auditorium. The unique holiday program allowed hundreds of food pantry clients in need to select new Christmas gifts for themselves and their families.
The St. Lucy’s auditorium was transformed on Friday from a gymnasium into something of a department store. A squad of volunteers, including students from the Future Business Leaders of America and National Honor Society organizations at Westhill High School among others, helped unpack and arrange by category comforters and towels, pots and pans, coats and jackets, shirts and hoodies, toys and games on long tables set up around the room. In a matter of hours, the auditorium was full of well-organized towers of tea kettles, mountains of stuffed animals and stacks of sweaters.
The volunteers worked under the direction of St. Lucy’s parishioner Marie Rothbaler, a retired teacher from West Genesee High School who, along with friend Donna Bernardini-Carr, has co-directed the gift-giving program for the last several years. Rothbaler said she works year-round to find useful, quality items for the Christmas event at the best prices; the program runs on a tight budget that depends on donations, so every dollar must be stretched to ensure as many people as possible are helped.
The program also receives generous donations of items from individuals, parishes, organizations and local businesses. The hours of effort by an eclectic group of hands and hearts come together on gift-giving day.
“This is the real Christmas,” Rothbaler said as she surveyed the scene.
The big day started early.
By 4 a.m. Saturday morning, the first clients had begun to gather outside the auditorium and many more soon followed. More than 1,000 adults and children were registered for this year’s program, said food pantry director Leslie Dubiel.
Just before the doors opened at 9 a.m., Dubiel reminded the dozens of volunteers on hand what a blessing it was to be able to serve others. Though the clients would be leaving with presents, she said, “we’re really the ones who will get the gifts today.”
Suzanne Close greeted the clients on their way into the auditorium. A regular pantry volunteer back for her second Christmas program, Close paired clients with personal shopper volunteers to assist them while they chose their gifts.
Being part of a special day for the families she has grown to know through the pantry “just warms my heart,” she said.
Once inside, clients redeemed the tickets they were given at check-in for gifts. The quantity and color of the tickets correlated to the number and ages of members in the client’s family; one clothing item and one non-clothing item were allotted to each family member. Each family also received a pack of toiletries.
Personal shoppers Devin Murphy and Mike Bernet, both members of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s CYO program, helped clients Tyneisha, 9; Tyrone, 7; and Khazairi, 1, pick out (and play with) toys while their mother selected clothing and had her gifts wrapped.
“It was a good experience,” Murphy said. “I’m glad I was able to help others who might not be as fortunate.”
Larry Vertucci, volunteering for a second year at the program and this time with his teenage grandchildren in tow, was paired with client Martha and her two young granddaughters. He helped them navigate the bustling auditorium and made sure the girls took home some toys. Once her shopping was complete, Martha turned to Larry, put her arms around him and thanked him. Vertucci, who had earlier questioned how anyone could leave the event with a dry eye, got a little choked up.
“That was something special,” he said.
But perhaps some of the most touching moments of the day came when clients got to spend a little time with the man in the red suit. Children of all ages — including more than a few adults — told Santa their big Christmas wishes and posed for starry-eyed pictures, which were printed out on site for clients to take home.
Despite what is surely a busy season up in the North Pole, Santa said he made time for the annual event for the same simple reason as the other volunteers: “I just want to spread a little cheer.”