By Celine Klosterman
IOWA CITY — Standing in front of 19 heaps of wrapped gifts, students at Regina Junior/Senior High School prayed for the recipients: Congolese refugees, single moms, children and immigrants whose families earn an average of $772 a month.
“There is no money for gifts — not this year,” senior Adam Ries said in the school gym during a Dec. 20 prayer service.
So Regina students had stepped in, collecting hundreds of donations including furniture, appliances, winter coats and baby toys for 19 local families in need. It was the 13th year the school had undertaken its Christmas Basket Project, designed not only to offer charity but to educate students about poverty, according to Kathy McCue, project coordinator and Regina campus minister.
The effort got rolling in November, when 60 seniors split into small groups that were matched with families served by the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County. Students interviewed the families to make up Christmas wish lists. Each group of seniors then took a list back to one of the religion classes at the junior/senior high school. Every class worked to get items requested by its assigned family.
Local businesses and Regina families donated new and used items, and area parishioners gave money for the project after Masses one weekend. In mid-December, seniors used the money raised to buy gifts that weren’t donated. After the Dec. 20 morning prayer service, students delivered the presents.
For senior Grace Larew, meeting a family who lacked material possessions was eye-opening. “They had a mattress on the floor and no blankets. That night at home I saw six blankets on my bed, and I wasn’t even using all of them…. That was pretty powerful for me.”
Senior Michael Cooper recalled interviewing a 19-year-old woman who shared an apartment with babies and her Spanish-speaking parents. Their home had broken pots and pans and no beds. “You could tell she was pretty stressed out,” he said. “She was really thankful to us, but hesitant to ask for anything.”
Senior Oliva Gillitzer said she also interviewed recipients who “didn’t want to seem greedy,” despite lacking basic furnishings for their mobile home. During the prayer service, she described how the family’s five children under age 7 “got excited about us bringing them a table and chairs.”
To help students empathize with people in such need, McCue leads a poverty simulation in her peace and justice classes each year before Christmas. During the exercise, youths play the roles of people searching for affordable housing, child care and other necessities while battling obstacles like a job loss.
The education students receive during the Christmas Basket Project changes their perspective, senior Hannah Seaman learned from her older sister two years ago. “When we were actually able to meet people who didn’t have what we did, that made poverty seem more real,” Seaman said.
Though seniors must devote time to the project outside of school hours, it’s worth it, Cooper said. “You’re making people’s Christmas better. It’s so rewarding.”