Santa Claus has some helpers in the Southwest.

While they rarely deal with snow and frigid temperatures like their North Pole counterparts, these four women do support the business of spreading Christmas joy. As sponsor coordinators, they’re looking to recruit more helpers to join their ranks. They anticipate needing more than 700. Individuals, families, businesses, schools and youth groups make great candidates.

They would be responsible for buying and delivering basic Christmas gifts to an area family in need on behalf of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Just like Santa’s operations, the local helpers — called sponsors — would know the family’s profile including gender, age, clothing sizes and toy desires. They would also deliver a bag of groceries that include the fixings for a traditional Christmas dinner, be it ham, turkey or tamale-based.

Students from St. John Bosco School prepare to deliver gifts and fixings for a true Christmas dinner to an area family facing financial setbacks through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in this undated photo. The school adopts several families. (courtesy photo)

It’s all part of St. Vincent de Paul’s annual Adopt-A-Family Program. The effort brings Christmas joy to both the sponsor and the adopted family.


The Society of St. Vincent de Paul invites individuals, families, businesses and groups to sponsor a family in need during the Advent season. Volunteers will match sponsors with families facing verified need. Sponsors will then schedule a visit to deliver gifts and grocery items for a Christmas meal.

Deadline to sponsor: Dec. 1

Info: (602) 261-6820

Families who wish to be adopted: call 2-1-1

Some sponsors adopt a family to teach children about giving and perhaps request a family dynamic that mirrors their own. Others do it as a corporate or group service effort. Scottsdale’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. John Bosco schools have each adopted 20 families a year for more than a decade. High school honor societies and key clubs often participate too.

Still others sign up to create a two-way Christmas memory for themselves and the family they serve. Last year a husband initiated the sponsorship process then gifted the shopping and delivery experience to his wife.

Ceci Andrews and her neighbors once adopted or sponsored a family at Christmastime. She said the St. Gregory conference where is she is a member often has large families who don’t always get adopted — sponsors can pick the size range that fits their budget. This particular family shared a two-bedroom apartment with five or six kids.

“We just wanted them to have a neat Christmas — dinner and presents — and not have to worry for that one day … know that somebody cared for them to make that happen,” Andrews said.

The effort paid off.

“You could tell that they truly appreciated what was being done,” Andrews said. “The kids had made cards that were just lovely. They were just happy to have a Christmas memory.”

Andrews is now one of those four women who helps Santa and St. Vincent de Paul as a sponsor coordinator. She joined Irene Mollette, Marcia Balestrino and Dottie Sullivan — the head helper — in the effort. In short, the women each dedicate a weekday to process the sponsor inquiries that come through the helpline or inbox, They split the fifth day.


Christmas ‘matchmakers’ link up donors with families in need

The women search family profiles submitted by an average of 25 parish-based Vincentian conferences across the Valley that would best match the family size, dominant language and geographic area the sponsor requested. They network with conference liaisons, the “heavy lifters” at each parish-based St. Vincent de Paul conference who then email potential sponsors their prospective family profile.

Sullivan’s personal goal is to have enough sponsors by the Dec. 1 deadline to serve an increasing number of families. There were 668 families in 2015 and an additional 50 or so last year totaling 300 more than the need was just five years ago.

“We’ve never really had to turn people away once we reach the deadline,” Sullivan said.

D.L. Withers Construction, whose portfolio includes several Valley churches and schools in the Diocese of Phoenix, often adopts at least a handful of families through St. Vincent de Paul at Christmastime. This is part of their collection one year. (courtesy photo)

The hotline is already open and the women expect to stay busy playing matchmaker in the days before and after Thanksgiving so sponsors can better stretch their dollars through seasonal sales. They’re encouraged to spend no more than $35-$45 per person.

At the surface, Mollette’s matchmaking process is fairly simple: “I say a lot of prayers,” she said. “I just trust the Holy Spirit to put together the right ones.”

The women assure that the adoptable families are properly vetted. A Vincentian team makes a home visit to assess needs and makes all recommendations for the adoption program. The families then promise to not sign up for another Christmas adopt-a-family program.

Adoptable families are usually ones who have received a food box or financial assistance through St. Vincent de Paul at some point during the year. It’s often due to a job loss or an illness that sets back family finances.

“Those are the kinds of families that’s really nice to help,” said Balestrino, who has been a Vincentian at St. Paul Parish and now St. Gabriel the Archangel in Cave Creek. “People who all of a sudden find themselves in a tough situation where it’s usually pay bills or buy gifts.”

For the families in the St. James conference in Glendale where Mollette serves, it’s a lot of blue collar workers who haven’t completely recovered. Such underemployment leaves them just eking by.

“A lot of our families would try to do something for Christmas, but it wouldn’t be much,” Mollette said.

That’s where sponsors through St. Vincent de Paul’s Adopt-A-Family program step in. Or, as one young mom put it when Sullivan made her first Christmas delivery, “Oh, you’re my guardian angel I’ve been praying for.”

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