By Joyce Coronel
It’s that magical time of year again when families and friends gather for holiday cheer, exchanging gifts, savoring meals and enjoying the comforts of hearth and home.
Not everyone, however, is similarly situated, a fact that doesn’t escape the members of Tempe and West Chandler churches.
At Dayspring United Methodist Church, the congregation gathered on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to bake pies for more than 400 foster children who reside in group homes in Tempe. Volunteers working with other churches, the Mesa police and retired Cardinals players helped set up, serve and clean up the dinner the next day.
Carolyn Blaney-Arndt helps coordinate the meal every year and also serves as a court appointed special advocate for foster kids. About 14,000 children are in Arizona’s foster care system and of those, about 40 percent, particularly teenagers, live in group homes, she said.
“So they’re going into group homes where there are paid employees that are working around the clock, not a typical style mother-father parental role,” Blaney-Arndt said. “We’re trying to share a little bit more family- oriented things for the holidays.”
On Christmas Eve the church will share home-baked goods with foster children in some of Tempe’s bigger group homes.
“We want to make sure that those kids are getting a…taste of what our own families will be having at Christmas time,” Blaney-Arndt said. “It’s just a drop in the bucket but we’re trying to do what we can to share that bit.”
Steve Lappen, who belongs to Arizona Community Church, has a similar personal mission to serve the poor and has been doing so for years.
At first, his efforts were concentrated on downtown Phoenix where he found the homeless, immigrants, refugees and others who needed a helping hand. Revitalization of the downtown area caused him to seek out the needy on Native American reservations.
“We’re going to the Hopi reservation on Dec. 14 and then on then on the 15th to the White Mountain Apache reservation,” Lappen said. His van and trailer will haul donated toys, gifts and food to bring a bit of holiday cheer to Native populations. Accompanying Lappen on the journey will be a team of volunteers from Teen Challenge of Arizona.
The volunteers, who are in the midst of a substance abuse recovery program, will be “going into these very difficult places to help kids and help communities that are at risk. It brings purpose and healing, enhancing the recovery process,” Lappen said.
He calls his work among the poor a divine calling and is hoping to get more support for his organization, Crossroads Youth Intervention.
“We are recipients of the Arizona tax credit that helps us get kids to camp in the summertime and underwrites some of the costs of the Christmas outreach,” Lappen said.
“I want to challenge people to be selfless, that their time is limited on this earth and it’s better to give than to receive.”
At St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church, a Thanksgiving food drive helped feed hundreds of families in Chandler, South Phoenix and at St. Peter’s Indian Mission in Bapchule, south of Chandler.
An annual foster family Christmas party at the church serves as a culmination event for its holiday outreach to families in need. The evening includes dinner, a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus, craft tables, face painting, music and more.
Brightly lit Christmas trees adorn the inside the church, each decorated with tags that indicate a name and a gift suggestion. St. Andrew’s Giving Tree program provides a happy Christmas to families in the parish and others who are having difficulties making ends meet. Every family that St. Andrew’s sponsors through its Giving Tree program receives two gifts per child under 18 years, a family gift, a gift card to either a grocery store, Target or Walmart, a bag of personal toiletries for the entire family, and a laundry basket filled with laundry supplies.
All three faith communities, alongside many others, are helping transform lives through generosity and service.
Blaney-Arndt of Dayspring, said that volunteering has fueled the inspiration to assist foster kids and has also made her more thankful.
“The very first year I ever did anything related to foster kids I went home with a sense of gratitude for my own situation in life and having my own family and inspiration that I needed to do more.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Rev. Robert Aliunzi, pastor of St. Andrew’s:
“The most important thing for us to realize is that we are blessed so abundantly and because of that,
we have an inherent obligation as a church to share that blessing with those who are not fortunate, which is what Jesus himself did. He came as a poor person so as to experience poverty in order to be able to transform that poverty into richness.”