Advent: Serving, giving in love

Volunteers from SRP’s print shop prepare fresh peppers at André House Sept. 4. Volunteers help feed homeless guests year-round. André House staff is seeking donations of pies and money to help provide Thanksgiving this year. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLC SUN)
Volunteers from SRP’s print shop prepare fresh peppers at André House Sept. 4. Volunteers help feed homeless guests year-round. André House staff is seeking donations of pies and money to help provide Thanksgiving this year. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLC SUN)

Catholics tithe and give of themselves year-round at the parish and community levels with sometimes renewed fervor during Thanksgiving and Advent.

They fill up grocery bags for their local St. Vincent de Paul conference to use in emergency food boxes or drop items in a donation bin at the grocery store. Some freely give money to local outreaches while others do so and claim a charitable tax credit.

The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas also sees families serving together in soup kitchens, groups providing a Christmas celebration for a family in need through “adoption” programs and corporate teams sponsoring drives or lending a hand.

“We’re really all called to be in a spirit of thanksgiving for what we have and share that with other people,” Anthony Gleich, an East Valley Catholic, said.

He has led efforts for several years to reach families, individuals and groups in dire situations through clothing and backpack drives plus yard maintenance to avoid city violations. The effort received its nonprofit status about a year ago.

Making an Investment in Love and Kindness lives up to its name through five programs that provide Native American outreach, neighborly support, stuffed bears with prayers, mentorship for enterprise development and youth ministry. Volunteers, grants, fundraising and social media efforts make it happen.

Current outreach has the nonprofit teaming up with the Daughters of Charity in Tuba City. Their “Winter Warmth” project is raising funds to support elders who live in rural, snowy areas of Arizona without running water or electricity. Venturing outdoors is a must as restrooms are separate from the home.

M.I.L.K. will return to the Cocopah Youth Home in Yuma at Christmastime to deliver hygiene items and token gifts to youth in the tribal foster care system. They’ll do the same with Hopi teenagers in Second Mesa.

Volunteers have spent some 575 hours on Native American outreach this year alone and nearly 3,570 hours total — the equivalent of 89 work weeks — investing in love and kindness.

Generations of love

The O’Gara family focuses much of their charitable outreach in the West Valley. The St. Thomas Aquinas parishioners brought their love of reaching out to neighbors and the elderly with them from Nebraska five years ago. They formally created a nonprofit for their outreach: Generations of Love.

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Hear more song selections from the O’Gara children

The Catholic Sun on YouTube: “Amazing Grace” and an instrumental

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They quickly connected themselves with La Loma Care Center in Litchfield Park. It gave the six homeschooled children a performance venue to share their growing musical abilities be it on piano, accordion or guitar. They have offered monthly themed concerts ever since with the older boys making regular separate trips to play privately on the residential floors.

“Instead of playing my instrument by myself, I can use my talents for others,” said Brady, 13, and the current eldest performer on the circuit. Two older siblings are in high school and one is in college.

Christy O’Gara, the matriarch, said the experience has taught her three boys and three girls patience and brought joy to residents with Alzheimer’s or other challenges. Annemarie, the youngest at 8, brings youthful cheer during brief visits with a patient suffering from schizophrenia. Annemarie also gives each resident at the concert a handmade drawing or artwork she colored.

Christy O'Gara makes sure part of her family's monthly visit at La Loma Care Center in Litchfield Park includes personal visits before or after her children's musical performance.  (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Christy O’Gara makes sure part of her family’s monthly visit at La Loma Care Center in Litchfield Park includes personal visits before or after her children’s musical performance. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

“What began as a music gift to perform became a lifelong gift. It was a gift of God’s presence. We were called to be near those with disabilities, the elderly,” Christy said.

The family has befriended many elderly and accepted their passing from this life. Chris, the patriarch, has reached out to three nursing facilities under construction in hopes of spreading their love.

“You’re touching lives. It’s the end of their lives, but you’re touching lives,” Chris said.

His wife draws on her background as a fitness expert to gently motivate elderly residents. When she notices them tapping a toe to the beat, Christy reminds them that movement is good for circulation.

“A lot of residents really, really love it and you can see it on their faces,” Brady said.

The O’Garas have also performed at Maggie’s Place and regularly provide a dinner show at a West Valley domestic violence shelter. The family is also known for their loaves of banana bread that welcome new neighbors plus their “Bird’s Nest” meal and other dishes for families experiencing medical issues.

Their organization’s website gives families looking for volunteer opportunities tips and places to get started.

Praying with prisoners

Eva and Andrew Berney had no idea that their quest to volunteer would lead them to jail. Every Thursday evening the St. Timothy couple treks from Mesa to I-17 and Pinnacle Peak Road in north Phoenix to lead prayer services for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

They also visit Christmas morning to host celebrations in the housing units. Andrew estimated half of the 400 boys don’t get visitors that day so the couple brings what little cheer and gifts they can. Socks, shampoo and crossword puzzles are hot items.

“When they get shampoo that smells really good, they’re excited,” Eva said.

Andrew noticed the inmates also appreciate prayer cards year-round. The 13-17-year-olds use toothpaste to “glue” them to the wall.

“The more ornate the card is, the more valuable they are,” he said.

The couple teaches from parables and other parts of Scripture guiding them toward the ideas of hope, peace and forgiveness. Andrew encourages the young men to create five-year and 25-year plans.The couple prays the seeds of Jesus they plant get watered along the way.

The Berneys said the Holy Spirit put them in prison ministry nine years ago. They had never set foot inside one until one of their employees was arrested once. They visited him.

“We were very moved by the sense of despair we felt in the waiting room,” Eva said.

They were looking for a new ministry to support anyway, and when taking Communion to the hospital didn’t pan out, they saw God’s hand in it. Both said the experience has deepened their faith and allowed them to be God’s hands and feet. They even created a chapel so the youth could pray in a safe and calming space instead of the cafeteria.

“So now when the kids come in they feel like they’re in a really holy place and I think they feel closer to God,” Eva said.

Those who don’t come get a blessing too. The couple rides around with the chaplain in her cart on their way out and prays over the facility.

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Advent service opportunities

Looking for a way to give back this Advent and Christmas season? Consider helping some local organizations serve those in need:

St. Vincent de Paul Adopt-A-Family: Work one-on-one with a family in need to provide a toy and clothing item for the kids plus fixings for a Christmas dinner. Good project for families, schools and businesses. Adopt by Dec. 1. Info: (602) 261-6820 or email vincentiansupport@svdpaz.org.

St. Vincent de Paul Thanksgiving: Donate a turkey to help struggling families provide a traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Donors can also drop off turkeys at any AJ’s Fine Foods, Bashas’ or Food City location Nov. 25, Turkey Tuesday, or donate anytime online.

André House: Join its annual Thanksgiving Eve vigil, 8 p.m. Nov. 26 at the White Tanks Cemetery to remember the homeless who have died. Pies and money are needed to serve Thanksgiving Day. Year-round need for evening kitchen/dining room help and other ministries. Info: (602) 255-0580.

Paz de Cristo: Donate turkeys and traditional Thanksgiving food items at the outreach center, 424 W. Broadway Road in Mesa. Info: (480) 464-2370.

Make an Investment in Love and Kindness: Support its “winter Warmth” outreach, help provide Christmas gifts for teenagers in foster care or other projects. Info: (480) 553-2342.

Generations of Love: A family effort to bring cheer to the elderly, disabled and others in times of need.

Prison Ministry: Contact Kevin at (602) 354-2485 or kstarrs@diocesephoenix.org

St. Joseph the Worker:  Select from three Christmas card designs created by a St. Joseph the Worker Jesuit volunteer and funds will support clients seeking meaningful employment. Cards are  $10 each or $25 for three cards. Mix and match designs and add a personal message. Order by Dec. 22. Info: (602) 223-3467.

Maggie’s Place Gift adoption: Provide wish list items for current and alumnae moms. Large drive opportunities including paper ornaments for group effort or individual adoptions available. Info: (602) 262-5555 or christmas@maggiesplace.org.

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