By Joyce Coronel, The Catholic Sun

Christmas joy came a little early for 34 underprivileged children from Guadalupe this year.

That’s because members of the Knights of Columbus Council from Corpus Christi Parish in Ahwatukee were once again stepping up as Santa’s helpers.

This is the 15th year the council has connected with Frank Elementary, a K-5 school in nearby Guadalupe. The town is one of the poorest in Arizona, with a third of its 6,500 residents living at or below the poverty line. The school nurse helps identify the neediest of students to be the recipients of the Knights’ generosity.

Gary Ryan, one of the Knight volunteers, once worked at the Ahwatukee J.C. Penney’s and said the children are thrilled to be selected.

“They are very excited and happy,” Ryan said. “We bring them in here and sit them on the floor, and it’s buzz, buzz, buzz as they talk and visit. Then they’re assigned the adults from the Knights to go shopping.”

This year, 18 boys and 16 girls were ferried to the store that sits off I-10 on Ray Road for an early morning shopping spree. It was still dark when the school bus from Frank Elementary pulled up to the curb, but, inside the store, volunteers and employees were busy getting things ready.

The volunteers had their assigned child’s name and sizes plus a check list for the morning of shopping. From shoes and socks to jackets, blouses, shirts, and underwear, the children get to choose from plentiful store racks, with many items marked down for the Christmas season.

“Here they come,” one Santa-hat-wearing volunteer called excitedly as the students filed through the door, smiling. A few of them seemed shy while others gave volunteers a high-five.

Normalicia Blanco, Frank Elementary’s school liaison and a member of Corpus Christi, has been participating in the Knights’ effort every year since its inception. She got emotional discussing how impactful the annual Knights’ Kids event is for Frank Elementary’s families.

“We have a few homeless children on the bus today, and, when I say homeless, some are living in cars,” Blanco said. The children often have to share shoes and clothes with older siblings, which means things don’t always fit well.

“God put us together. The Knights of Columbus and J.C. Penney’s have been just an absolute blessing to us,” Blanco said. “There’s just so much love.”

Blanco called the Knights her “angels” and thanked them for assisting the children.

Leslie Wilkerson, a J.C. Penney’s employee, greeted Blanco. The two know each other from previous Knights Kids’ events at the store. Wilkerson said she volunteers every year for the event and loves it. Her parents died tragically when she was growing up, so she knows what it means to struggle as a child.

“A lot of times they want a gift for their families as well, and it’s hard for them to get things for themselves,” Wilkerson said. “When you let them know that they deserve it, it’s almost like they don’t know. But then they walk out of here feeling so good. It’s beautiful.”

One volunteer helped a little girl try on winter coats as Christmas music played over the store’s loudspeakers. “Pink is my favorite,” the girl said. The volunteer zipped up the puffy, bright pink coat and stood back. “You look beautiful,” she told the child.

Nearby, a Knight tried to interest a little boy in a dark-green jacket. “It’s getting colder out there,” he told the boy.

Once the shopping was completed, the volunteers walked the kids up to the cash register to check out. Afterward, it was time for a bite to eat and a meeting with someone special. A table piled high with muffins, pastries, fresh fruit, and juice packs beckoned.

Spreading joy

Not all the children selected for the program this year were able to take part in the festivities, said Donald Ream, one of the Knight volunteers.

“They are the poorest of the poor. A lot of these families, the kids are living in cars or under overpasses. Sometimes they don’t get picked up because the bus driver can’t find them.” Ream turned as another volunteer and child approached.

“Somebody in back would like to meet you,” he said to a little boy. Just around the corner, Santa Claus was sitting as volunteers brought children up one by one to greet him. Every child receives a wrapped gift, courtesy of J.C. Penney’s employees. They also receive a Christmas stocking stuffed with goodies when they walk out the door to board the bus.

“This is the best part of the job right here,” Ream said. “There was a young girl who came around the corner and was so excited to see Santa. Her eyes lit up and she gave him a hug. That’s what’s really touching.”

George Nortarpole, one of the Knights, said the Corpus Christi Council’s goal is to have every council partner with a local needy school or program each year.

“Many councils do not have the resources to help a large group, but even if they can help five children, it’s wonderful,” Nortarpole said.

Next week, the Knights of Columbus Council at St. Andrew Parish will bring children from Carminati School in Tempe to J.C. Penney’s for a similar morning of cheer.

The Corpus Christi Council budgets about $5,000-$6,000 for the annual event in order to allow each child to purchase $125 worth of clothing or shoes, an unheard-of boon for the children and a touching experience for the volunteers, many of whom had tears in their eyes as they looked on.

“Here it’s hands-on,” Ream said. “And that’s the key. It’s direct.”

Blanco, the school liaison, said a man recently donated 100 turkeys for families of students at the school. The man was once one of the students selected to participate in the shopping spree at J.C. Penney’s. “He wanted to give back,” Blanco said.

Kara O’Leary was volunteering alongside her father, filling in for her mother, a former teacher’s aide, who died in April. The impact of the Knights’ Kids event, O’Leary said, went beyond the material.

“They know they’re loved and that they matter.”