Family showcases generosity, sharing opportunities

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, December 19, 2010

Amid Thanksgiving’s turkey dinner and football games, another tradition prevailed at the Kastenholz home in Western Springs this season.

Each year, the family receives a document from Catholic Charities’ Sponsor-a-Family initiative listing the name of one of the Chicago area’s neediest families along with a brief backstory and gift requests. On Thanksgiving Eve, the family — parents Bob and Mary Ellen as well as children Kevin, 24, Brian, 22, and Kathleen, 19 — journeys to a local shopping center to fulfill the requests.

“It’s a great way to show our gratitude to God for all he has given us,” Mary Ellen Kastenholz said.

Though the children have aged and been tugged in different directions, the family tradition continues uninterrupted into a new decade.

“It is very important to all of us and something we cherish doing together as a family,” Kathleen Kastenholz said. “We all know how important it is to give back and we plan on sharing this belief with those who enter our lives in the future.”

As the holiday season unravels, families across the Chicago area will benefit from the generosity shown by those such as the Kastenholz family. As a result, the holiday season will be brighter for many local residents and Catholic Charities will be fulfilling its noble aims.

Giving opportunities

Now in its 63rd year, Catholic Charities’ annual Celebration of Giving campaign is a month-long effort to collect gifts for children and families served by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The campaign, which brings the spirit of the holidays to thousands of people who struggle with desperate situations, includes both the Sponsor-a-Family program as well as the Toy Shower initiative.

With the Sponsor-a-Family program, Catholic Charities’ case workers identify up to 500 of the neediest families in the organization’s system. Producing a background on the family, including how they came to need Catholic Charities’ assistance, as well as a list of basic items requested, hundreds of local individuals, families, parishes and corporations step up to help those in need.

The Toy Shower program, meanwhile, seeks to fill children’s recreational wishes. Each year, nearly 10,000 kids in the Catholic Charities’ system receive something to play with, to learn from and to cuddle.

Though financial donations remain crucial to Catholic Charities’ mission, the in-kind donations received through both the Sponsor-a-Family and Toy Shower programs stand vital to the organization’s work.

“The in-kind donations free up a lot of our capital, as they bring in basic items that we won’t have to buy or procure for our clients,” Catholic Charities’ volunteer relations director Michael McDonnell said.

The charitable spirit

To those who have been given much, much is expected.

Bob Kastenholz heard this message early from his own father, the late Francis Kastenholz, and has carried it with him throughout his life.

“Whether it was supporting the weekly Sunday morning parish collection in early grade school or sending financial aid overseas to one of several deserving families … [my father] instilled in me the importance of charity,” said Bob Kastenholz.

When the Kastenholz children were in grade school, the family would grab grocery items for families in need. Once Bob joined the Catholic Charities Board of Directors, following in his father’s footsteps, the family began their Sponsor-a-Family tradition.

Over the years, the longstanding tradition has enriched the family’s perspective and helped dozens better enjoy the holiday season.

“[Parents of less fortunate families] want very much to provide a nice Christmas for their children, but realize they won’t be able to do so while meeting their other obligations. To humble themselves and ask for help must be a tough experience and … I’ve gained extra sensitivity to their situation,” Kevin Kastenholz said.

McDonnell said many families mimic the Kastenholz tradition, participating year after year in Catholic Charities-led programs that promote charitable giving.

“Parents see the opportunity to involve their children in stewardship and they gain an affinity for the program that keeps it going,” McDonnell said.

In fact, Brian Kastenholz recalls a Thanksgiving Eve shopping trip years ago when he noticed another family hovered over a similar list. “It’s truly inspirational to see the mission carried out by others and brings hope to putting presents in every family’s household in the Chicago area,” he said.