By Celine Klosterman
HILLS — It was two hours of crafts, live music, a meal and early Christmas presents. But Laura Westemeyer hopes the party she spearheaded for residents of Regency Mobile Home Park sends a longer-lasting message.
“I want people to know how much we care,” she said. “I hope they understand they’re not alone.”
The member of St. Joseph Parish in Hills helped welcome about 120 people to the church’s basement Dec. 12 for the second-annual Christmas gathering for families at Regency. The Iowa City mobile home community has been fined for drinking-water violations, and media reports have documented safety hazards, decaying structures and sanitation problems there.
Helping oversee the festivities were volunteers from St. Joseph Parish, the Iowa Children’s Museum, Children’s Center for Therapy, Church of the Nazarene and Grupo Manantial, a support group for Hispanic mothers of children with disabilities. Local businesses, organizations and individuals donated gifts and food for the evening.
As children decorated cloth hats resembling snowmen, Sylvia Dubon, a mother of four, voiced appreciation for the family time.
“There’s not much for kids to do at Regency,” said her mother, Olga Perez.
Dubon said her children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder aren’t always treated with patience. “But people here are nice and respectful.”
Westemeyer, founder of the Children’s Center for Therapy, said she was inspired to help Regency residents when she served as coordinator of religious education at St. Joseph’s from 1998 to 2003. During those years Jessie Montgomery, a social worker with Hills public schools, spoke to religious education classes about the challenges low-income families face. Catholic students responded by buying Christmas gifts for Regency families.
For years, Westemeyer prayed to be able to host a Christmas party for people living at the mobile home park as well. Father Bill Kneemiller, St. Joseph’s pastor, and Carol Kaalberg, parish life administrator, who were assigned to the parish in 2010, helped her bring the idea to life.
Fr. Kneemiller is a “godsend,” said Tammie Escher, a Tiffin resident who attended the Christmas party with two teenage sons. She’d lived in Regency for 32 years before she became temporarily homeless this summer. The priest helped her get short-term housing outside of Regency and even inspired her 21-year-old son to begin learning about Catholicism, she said.
Her aunt, Mabelle Frantz, is among Regency residents who’ve benefited from home-maintenance projects led by volunteers from St. Joseph Parish and St. Mary parishes in Lone Tree and Nichols. Frantz voiced thanks Dec. 12 that her family would again receive help, this time in the form of gifts for her grandchildren. She said she shares her home with her son, who has a disability; her daughter-in-law and five grandchildren ages 4-14. “It will be a tight Christmas.”
St. Joseph parishioner Terry Ball said that after living in the area for 35 years, he’s seen the physical, emotional and spiritual needs Regency residents have. So he was inspired to volunteer at the Christmas party for them. “They’re my brothers and sisters in Christ.”
To help with future home-rehabilitation projects at Regency, call Fr. Kneemiller at (319) 679-2271.