St. Lucy’s gears up for annual Christmas Program for the needy

By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor

Marie Rothbaler, co-director of St. Lucy’s Christmas Program, said she can’t quite remember how or when the day of gift-giving got started, but the effects of the day itself are something she’ll never forget.

“So many people who have been involved in it say, ‘This is my Christmas,’” Rothbaler said.

The Christmas Program is an opportunity for those in need to choose their own Christmas gifts.

People who are clients of St. Lucy’s food pantry sign up for the Christmas Program, and every adult and child leaves with presents to open up on Christmas morning. Communicants of St. Lucy’s who are in need can also sign up for help.

Last year, the program served 320 families made up of 578 adults and 175 children. People braved the cold, miserable December weather to begin lining up at 5 a.m., Rothbaler said.

Each family is given an envelope filled with colored tickets that can be redeemed for items at different gift stations in the auditorium. The numbers and colors of tickets are based on the number of people in the family and each family member’s age.

Everyone who comes can choose one new item of clothing and one new non-clothing gift.

Rothbaler said she and her friend Donna Bernadini-Carr have co-directed the program for four years now, and she’s ready to get started with this year’s program. The St. Lucy’s auditorium is prepared for the event on Friday, Dec. 11. “It’s quite a process,” she said. The auditorium is decorated and stations are prepared with different gifts to choose from based on age, type of gift and gender.

The give-away takes place on Saturday, Dec. 12 starting at 9 a.m. and Rothbaler said it’s usually over by 1 p.m. “By 2:30 p.m. we have it all cleaned up and you wouldn’t know it even happened,” she said.

But what happens in those few quick hours is something really special, Rothbaler said. “It’s very festive,” Rothbaler said. “It really is like a party.”

When the doors are opened, each family is welcomed by a personal shopper who collects and carries the gifts each client chooses.

Volunteers walk around serving plates of cookies. There is live music provided by the Dave Clark 5, St. Lucy’s music ministry and Second Olivet Missionary Baptist Church.

Santa sits by a Christmas tree filled with stuffed animals, and he gives each child one toy from the tree. Digital cameras and a printer are on hand so that parents can leave with a Christmas picture of their child with Santa.

While families are waiting for Santa, they can drop off the gifts they’ve chosen to be gift-wrapped.

Gently-used books are also available, and every family gets a toiletry bag filled with items like toothpaste, razors and lotion.

Rothbaler said she’s constantly surprised by the eager volunteers the event draws from members of the community, the local CYO and West Hill and West Genesee High Schools as well as the generous donations from parishes and local businesses.

For her part, Rothbaler sounds like a seasoned shopper when she talks of her year-long hunt for gifts on the tight program budget. She said shopping for the next Christmas Program starts with the sales in the very first days of January.

But Rothbaler, a retired teacher from West Genessee High School, said the process of coordinating the Christmas Program has taught her a few things. She said one year she found a great deal on pretty, sparkly women’s tops that would be perfect for the holidays. But at the end of the day, most of the tops were still left hanging. Rothbaler said she learned a valuable lesson: “If you had one chance to get one present, are you going to get something that you’d wear only once or are you going to get a warm sweater?”

She said she has also learned that there’s no sense putting out pants for an option because there’s nowhere for people to try them on. She’s learned that tablecloths and napkins, items Rothbaler said she personally loves, aren’t practical for families who probably don’t have their own washing machines.

But she’s also learned what items fly off the shelves, items like makeup kits, towels and sheets, comforters and even children’s furniture like small tables and chairs.

Donations of new gifts to be given to those in need for the St. Lucy’s Christmas Program will be accepted through Dec. 11. Donations can be made at the St. Lucy’s food pantry located in the auditorium across from St. Lucy’s, 432 Gifford St. in Syracuse. The food pantry is open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and from noon to 1 p.m. on Sundays.

But Rothbaler said she’d especially love to receive donations during the set-up day from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 11 because then she won’t have to worry about storage.

She said that in particular, the Christmas Program needs toys, especially multicultural dolls, as well as CD walkmen, blankets, electric razors, board games, Legos, adult pajamas and robes. Rothbaler said the program doesn’t need any more children’s clothes.

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