Giving trees a part of Christmas charity at parishes

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Thursday, December 14, 2023

Giving trees a part of Christmas charity at parishes

Volunteers pack gifts on Dec. 3, 2023 donated through the giving tree drive at St. Gilbert Parish in Grayslake. It was the 50th annual giving tree gift drive for those in need. Gifts go to Catholic Charities in Lake County. Gift cards totally over $7,000 would be distributed to the parish's St. Vincent de Paul ministry, the local PADS program and St. Benedict the African Parish in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Michal Taradys and Brandon Rodriguez carry gifts to the sorting room from the narthex of the church at St. Gilbert Church in Grayslake on Dec. 2, 2023. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Young volunteers pick up gifts from the narthex. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Aidan Bechard receives gifts to transport to the sorting room. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers sort gifts. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Margaret Hilliard, who started the giving tree program 50 years ago, accepts a gift from a volunteer. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers sort gifts. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Heidi Metz matches gifts with requests. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Volunteers match gifts with requests. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Fifty years ago, Margaret Hilliard, a parishioner at St. Gilbert Parish in Grayslake, read about giving trees in a magazine and thought it would be a good thing for her church to try.

For the first 20 years or so, St. Gilbert’s giving tree mostly garnered donations of hats, mittens and gloves, but when Hilliard teamed up with fellow parishioner Cherye Olmschenk, it grew into the large effort it is now, with the church vestibule filled with gifts and bikes on the first Sunday of Advent.

“The parish has been so receptive to it,” Hilliard said. “It just does everybody’s heart good just to see the charity on display and the fact that they look forward to it every year.”

Parishioners either purchase gifts based on requests from families or donate money for gift cards. The gifts go to Catholic Charities in Lake County and the gift cards to the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, PADS and St. Benedict the African Parish.

The parish raised about $7,500 in gift cards and this year collected over 400 gifts, which included 22 new bikes.

Dozens of volunteers turned out Dec. 3 to sort the gifts, which were to be delivered the following day to Catholic Charities. If any request is not fulfilled, volunteers pull from a backup stash of gifts. They also organize it so all family members receive the same amount of gifts.

Giving trees are ubiquitous in many parishes during the holiday season, and some parishes that have merged through Renew My Church are also merging their giving tree programs.

Such is the case at St. Veronica Parish in Flossmoor, which includes Infant Jesus of Prague and Sts. Irenaeus and Lawrence O’Toole churches.

“One of the things that all of these parishes had in common is a strong dedication to community service and community outreach,” said Leslie Dudley, who worked on the giving tree at Infant Jesus of Prague and is doing the same at St. Veronica Parish.

The parish was united in the summer of 2022 and received its new name that fall, so last year’s giving tree was the first community project that the combined parish did, Dudley explained.

“It’s the one thing that hopefully parishioners have been able to really get behind,” she said. “It doesn’t require a lot of time or effort but it’s something that we as a collective parish had always been dedicated to — making sure that our neighbors in need are being taken care of at Christmastime.”

The process changed in the wake of COVID-19. Instead of physical gifts, the local organizations they donate to prefer gift cards that they can give to clients. Organizers requested 900 gift cards for Catholic Charities’ food pantry located at St. Irenaeus Church, South Suburban PADS, Respond Now and the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“I think especially at this time of the year, our parishioners are looking for a way to really — above and beyond all of the other great works that they do throughout the year — to provide something that’s a little more special,” Dudley said.

The Church of the Holy Spirit and St. Marcelline Parish in Schaumburg are coming together as one parish.

Its giving tree benefits clients of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

At one time, the parish took requests from St. Vincent de Paul clients and broke them down into requests per family member. But they found that there was often an imbalance of donations within the same family.

“If we had a family of four children, one of them might get a bicycle or something really big like that, and the other kids would get a scarf,” said Deacon Tom LaMantia, who is the spiritual director for the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society.

As was the case with other programs, COVID-19 changed the way they did the giving tree. The St. Vincent de Paul Society asked people to purchase gift cards and donate them to the giving tree. Those cards are then given to people they serve for Christmas.

Each child and adult receives $50 in gift cards from Target or Walmart.

The client families responded positively to the change, LaMantia said.

“They could go out and use these gift cards and buy gifts for their children and get what they really need,” he said. “Or if things are bad enough in the family, they could still get the basics to keep them going through the holiday.”

The change is positive, he said.

“I think this is the best way for us to go for the families that we serve because we give them a sense of dignity that they can go out and do their own shopping and not take what somebody else thinks they need,” he said. “It’s worked real well for us in the past.”


  • christmas
  • parishes

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