Members of the Young Catholic Professionals group got into the Christmas spirit at the Refuge Café Dec. 12 by collecting gifts for Catholic Charities’ Emergency Santa effort that helps low-income parents give their children Christmas gifts. (Courtesy of Malissa Geer/CATHOLIC CHARITIES COMMUNITY SERVICES)
Emergency Santa program

Readers are invited to contribute a new, or gently used toy or gift. Gift cards are recommended for children 12-17.

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MESA — It began as a backyard project; an idea to help needy families at Christmas provide gifts for their children. Today, that outreach has blossomed into a full-fledged program by Catholic Charities Community Services that puts toys, clothing and other items into the hands of youngsters.

“Our Emergency Santa Program allows low-income parents to make an appointment and come pick out new Christmas gifts for their children who otherwise couldn’t afford gifts. In exchange, the parents volunteer one hour of their time with us or another local community program to give back to the community. It’s a really cool program,” said Malissa Geer, the agency’s director of community engagement and volunteer services.

Donors include churches, parishes, individuals and businesses that have contributed in recent weeks. At one point, Toys R Us, the nationwide chain, took part, but involvement ceased when the company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

“This year, we have had to reach out for more contributions, but we expect to serve around 1,500 children,” said Jean Christofferson, Catholic Charities’ director of marketing.

Still, giving has been robust, with the agency inaugurating a toy collection drive carried out by its Young Professionals Board. And the agency has been accepting new and gently used toys and gifts — wrapped or unwrapped — at its Care Campus in Mesa. Low-income parents make an appointment to select gifts.

The volunteer requirement for parents picking up gifts includes at least an hour of service per child, and the service is varied, according to Johanna Richards, community engagement supervisor at the Care Campus.

“This program affirms for parents and caregivers the idea of investing in their community. There is an opportunity to experience God’s blessing. It’s a beautiful ministry.”

— Malissa Geer, Community Engagement and Volunteer Services Director, Catholic Charities

“A lot of them work with children in afterschool programs, at churches, with nonprofit groups. They can also pick up and deliver groceries, or do yardwork for an elderly or disabled neighbor,” Richards added. Parents are required to submit a letter to Catholic Charities, signed by the recipient of the volunteer service, confirming the commitment was fulfilled.

One such parent is Gloria Gomez-Torres, a mother of four who now works for the Care Campus. Gomez-Torres’ involvement began more than 20 years ago, before Emergency Santa was a formal program.

“I was only 12 when my mom passed away; I was oldest of the girls and became responsible for my siblings. One of the neighbors, a retired woman, … was always involved in the community. During the holidays, we began receiving gifts from her.”

That neighborhood outreach grew yearly until Catholic Charities took over. It now serves families primarily across Maricopa County. Recipients do not have to be Catholic.

“One of Catholic Charities’ big things is the dignity of the individual. This is very aware of that dignity by being able to provide for individuals and, in turn, receive their gifts and talents,” Richards said.

“This program affirms for parents and caregivers the idea of investing in their community. There is an opportunity to experience God’s blessing,” added Geer. “It’s a beautiful ministry.”