Decentralized approach helps Rockford Diocese help those in need

By Lynne Conner For Chronicle Media

“Faith, Hope and Charity,” the motto of Bishop David J. Malloy, happens on a daily basis within the 11-county Catholic Diocese of Rockford.

The virtue of charity is especially prevalent during the Christmas season when social service centers, parishes and schools within the diocese organize programs to collect money, food and gifts for those in need.

According to Pat Winn, diocesan director of Catholic social services and Catholic charities, the sheer size of the Rockford Diocese makes it difficult to have one diocesan-wide program for charitable giving at Christmas.  Instead, Catholic Charities maintains a reciprocal partnership with and diocesan parishes, schools and other service organizations to identify those in need.

“Throughout the year, across the Diocese … we help a little more than 100,000 people in need,” Winn said.  “We also work with parishes around the Diocese to find and assist families in need especially during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.”

Winnebago and Boone counties are the center of the Rockford Diocese, which extends east to DeKalb and on to the Chicago suburban counties of Kane and McHenry. The Mississippi River forms the western boundary while the Wisconsin state line defines the north.

Recently, Catholic Social Services has taken a new approach to helping the less fortunate at Christmas.

“In the last two years, we have run a job fair in connection with gift giveaways at St. Elizabeth Community Center in Rockford,” Winn said.  “When parents come to the center looking for a way to help their children have a happier Christmas; they also find out about jobs.  The job fair helps the parents become self-sufficient and gives them the chance to provide merrier Christmases for their family in the years ahead.”

Many diocesan parishes contact Catholic Charities as early as August to get a list of families who are in need of food items and gifts at Christmas.  Parish volunteers write a family’s needs on a notecard and decorate “giving trees” at church with the cards in late November.

During the pre-Christmas season of Advent, parishioners are encouraged to take a tag off of the tree, then purchase and wrap Christmas gifts for that needy family.  The collected food and Christmas gifts are then distributed to families at the St. Elizabeth Community Center.

“Most all Catholic parishes in the Rockford area and Winnebago County have contributed food, gifts and funds to the St. Elizabeth Community Center,” Winn said.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that in today’s economy, there is no part of the Diocese that does not have needs which Catholic Charities tries to meet,” Winn said.

Employment opportunities vary widely in the diocese and depend on a region’s demographics and need for seasonal employment.  Catholic Charities takes these factors into consideration when allocating their resources and social services.

“In the western and eastern parts of the Rockford Diocese, Catholic Charities work with parishes in Freeport, Elgin, Aurora and McHenry; so we’re able to extend our outreach beyond Rockford,” Winn said.

He added that the Aurora office of Catholic Charities and large parishes in McHenry and Kane Counties are vital to helping the needy of the Diocese’s eastern region.

Christ the Teacher University Parish in DeKalb is also home to the Newman Catholic Student Center, a “parish away from home” for Catholic students attending Northern Illinois University.

This year, the parish has two programs to help the needy of DeKalb County:  a giving tree in the church’s foyer and a Christmas Shop set up in the parish’s community room.

Denise Sanders, director of campus ministry for the Newman Catholic Student Center explains, “Our giving tree not only helps provide gifts for families in need, but also provides gifts for residents of the DeKalb County Nursing Center and for children with incarcerated parent(s).”

NIU students who belong to the Newman Center provided the manpower and leg work to set up the giving tree and deliver the gifts.

This is the second year for the Christmas shop at Newman which is sponsored by the religious education department.

“People from the parish donate new, gently used and handmade items that are set up in the style of a yard sale by parish volunteers.  Teens from the parish and college student “elves” escort children of needy families through the shop and help them pick out gifts for their family members,” Sanders said.

“The elves help wrap the gifts while children write out the gift tags.  Parents wait in a corner of the community room so they won’t see what their child had chosen as a gift.  It is really amazing to see these kids get so excited about finding gifts for their families,” she said.  Last year, over 100 kids visited the Christmas shop event which was topped off with hot cocoa and cookies.

At St. Mary Parish in downtown DeKalb, the St. Vincent de Paul Society runs a weekly food pantry for the needy.  During the Christmas season, food pantry clients are eligible for the St. Nick program.  “We take up a parish collection and the money received is used to buy gift cards that are given to the patrons of the food pantry,” said Father Dean Russell, pastor of St. Mary’s/

“The gift cards give parents the ability to buy clothing and/or toys for their children, so on Christmas morning these kids have some gifts to open,” he said.  St. Mary Parish also partners with Hope Haven, a homeless shelter in DeKalb to provide meals for its patrons.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Mary’s provides Christmas food baskets for the needy while children at St. Mary School have monthly canned good collections for the food pantry.

For nearly 45 years, the students at Boylan Central Catholic High School in Rockford, have generously contributed to the school’s carefully planned Christmas basket program.

Organized by Boylan’s student council, each fourth hour class, teachers and staff members “adopt” a needy family and bring in donations of canned food, household items and toiletries according to a checklist provided by the families.  Every Boylan student is also asked to contribute $10 for the Christmas basket program, to pay for family gift items and perishable items.

Student council representatives from all grades are responsible for making sure each family’s list of needs is complete and use the donated money to buy toys and gifts.  The student council reps and their classmates wrap the presents, organize the boxed Christmas gifts and load the boxes onto a truck for transport to the St. Elizabeth Community Center.

Senior student council members and faculty advisors work in “bucket brigade” fashion to unload the truck at St. Elizabeth’s and organize each family’s boxes at the Center.

“This year, we are assisting 45 families in need from the St. Elizabeth Community Center,” said Chris Rozanski, principal of Boylan High School.  “It’s a team effort to get everything down to the gym at Boylan and loaded on the truck.  For several years, Hayes Distribution will come over with one of their large trucks, so all the gifts can be transported to St. Elizabeth’s.  Woodman’s Market has also contributed to our efforts by preparing ‘perishable item packs’ of turkeys, eggs, milk and bread for all of the families on the Christmas basket list.”

Rozanski added, “Boylan students aren’t given any incentives to participate in the Christmas basket program, because we want them to understand the intrinsic rewards of generosity, compassion, empathy, teamwork and charity over any extrinsic rewards that an incentive or competition would provide.  The kids might not admit it, but I think they feel a certain amount of pride in achieving this goal.”