By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
BETTENDORF — For the past 11 years, Steve and Angie Gustafson have made Christmas a little happier for families through the Jefferson/Lourdes Neighborhood Christmas Project.
“When my daughter was in first grade at Thomas Jefferson Elementary, we found that the family of one of her classmates was in need of help. I got a few neighbors together and we assisted that family for Christmas anonymously through the Jefferson principal,” said Steve. “Each Christmas this effort grew larger and larger so that we have helped 114 families and 43 seniors in the past 11 years.” The group has helped in smaller efforts, too.
They brought Lourdes Catholic School into the project three years ago. Angie is a pre-kindergarten teacher there. “We get a family from there to add to the list of families, and there are a few donors from Lourdes that are involved,” she said.
The Gustafsons reach out each October to develop lists of needs for donors to fulfill. By early November the lists are distributed; deliveries are made to the Gustafsons by the first week of December. This year’s drop-off point was Lourdes school cafeteria. Items were then transported to a building where social workers distributed them.
Donors come from both schools and a network of around 70 people, some in the neighborhood area, some not. Steve said the Thomas Jefferson PTA donated money and the Downtown Bettendorf Women’s Task Force sold ornaments and donated the proceeds.
The Gustafsons’ children, Emma and Jack, help create the lists, move items, label, etc. They also assist on collection day along with Lourdes Principal Jennifer Alongi; Angie and her teaching assistant, Julie Bonazzi; Julie’s daughter, Gabby; and Steve’s brother, Kris. Steve obtains names of people in need of assistance from Bettendorf School District social workers and the Bettendorf Police Department.
“I ask for families that are in the neighborhood/downtown area, so it really is neighbor helping neighbors. Everything is anonymous; I am the only one who knows who the donors are. I don’t even know who the needy families or seniors are; they all have a letter or number designation,” Steve said.
“Sometimes I deliver beds to a family, but even then I do my best to tell the receiving kids that it is a secret,” Steve said. “This prevents potential embarrassment for all involved, and I try my best to adhere to Matthew 6:1-4, but I do have to ‘advertise’ a bit sometimes to get donors. I get my seniors through a couple different sources, this year from a retirement home.”
Steve said he used the Signup Genius online program to create lists for the invited donors. Donors mark one or more items to purchase and deliver on the set date. Multiple spreadsheets also help, he said. “We appreciate being able to use the Lourdes cafeteria; that helped immensely in collecting and organizing.” In total, 18 families and 20 seniors received gifts in 2018, which included 240 items donated.
With some of the cash donations, the Gustafsons and social workers learned of extra ways to help families in need.
• Assisted a family with a child who makes frequent trips to University of Iowa Hospitals.
• Paid for a child’s eye exam.
• Assisted a homeless Jefferson school family with gift cards for clothes/blankets.
• Assisted four Edison Academy students who needed new clothes.
• Provided funds for perishable food items for many needy families.
• Provided gift cards for each of the 18 families and 20 seniors.
Steve said the social workers who distributed the gifts reported that the families were grateful.