By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
HILLS — Having outgrown the basement of St. Joseph Parish, an annual Christmas party for families and immigrants in need relied on help from neighboring parishes, local businesses and recipients to make this year’s event possible.
“This event is really about a village,” said organizer Laura Westemeyer, a member of St. Joseph Parish. For the past five years, the event has provided dinner, cake, activities and Christmas gifts to residents of local mobile home parks. This year’s event Dec. 18 at Hills Community Center hosted 94 families, up from about 30 families five years ago.
It began as a way to reach out to residents in Regency Mobile Home Park. Westemeyer said most of the families have working adults in the household, but the pay is low and many families do not qualify for holiday assistance because they do not have the required documents. “They ask for nothing, reluctant to even take a glass of water, and are so grateful for your hospitality.”
Among the Regency residents at the party were Ruth Caperone and her son, Jordan. Ruth works as a dishwasher, while her husband works construction. The Christmas party is the highlight of Jordan’s Christmas, Ruth said. “Jordan loves coming to this party… We are so happy and grateful for what we receive. Everyone is so kind.”
Prior to the event, families fill out forms indicating the size of the family, ages of family members and what items they wish to receive. This year, local businesses and individuals responded to the requests of 94 families. Among those who helped were Hills Bank, which adopted about 20 families; Westemeyer’s business, Children’s Center for Therapy in Iowa City, adopted another 20 families; and Hills-based Stutsman Inc. adopted about 10 families.
Parishioners also sponsored families and/or helped to organize the event, including those from the Hills parish, St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, St. Mary Parish in Oxford and St. Patrick and St. Mary parishes in Iowa City.
Elizabeth Bernal, a member of St. Patrick Parish, helped with party planning. “I am able to do something where I get to see so many kids smile. The families come together and have wonderful family time.” Bernal added that the presence of Father Mike Spiekermeier, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, was meaningful for attendees. “Many (recipients) are Catholic and we are happy to have him celebrate with us.”
Guests received the gifts at the party, as well as a meal served by Children’s Center for Therapy’s Grupo Manantial, a support group of Hispanic mothers of children with special needs. Meat was provided by Iowa City-based Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack, while other items were purchased from Hills-area stores with funding from the Washington County Riverboat Foundation.
Additionally, Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville donated a fleece scarf-making station, along with complimentary yearly membership for interested families.
A number of the recipients ask to help at the event as a way of expressing their gratitude, Westemeyer said. Among them are Irene and Arnold Rodriguez, members of St. Joseph Parish in West Liberty, who arrive early and stay until the end each year helping with mopping and mentoring of young Hispanic families, among other tasks.
Westemeyer said of all who help,“Their amazing willingness to stay late and help clean up or do whatever else needs to be done to help out makes this event even easier to put together.”