By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
CENTERVILLE — Appanoose County has one of the highest poverty rates in Iowa at about 15 percent. What this U.S. Census Bureau statistic doesn’t show is the eagerness of the county’s citizens to help those who are less fortunate.
“People talk about what we don’t have, but they don’t always talk about all the good people in the area,” said Terri Schofield, principal of Lakeview Elementary, Centerville’s third through sixth-grade building.
Each year, residents of the county’s largest community, Centerville, rally together to help in-need families at Christmas time, donating time and money to make sure persons facing economic hardship can have a good Christmas meal, gifts for the children and basic winter necessities.
About 150 volunteers from a variety of religious backgrounds helped with Operation Santa this year, including public school students, college sports teams, 4H clubs, adults and local churches. They served 166 families with a total of 398 children. Local businesses and community organizations offered donations and handiwork, as well. “There is a lot of willingness to better our community and the children in it,” said Teressa Bogle, one of four event co-chairs along with husband Mike and Tom and Kristy Demry. The Bogles and Demrys are members of St. Mary Parish-Centerville.
Lakeview Elementary chooses 10 sixth-graders to help with the project annually. While most are aware of Operation Santa, they aren’t aware of just how many children struggle with poverty. “(Providing gifts and essentials for 400 children) is like buying for every kid in our school building. It really hits home for them,” Schofield said.
Starting the week before Thanksgiving each year, local churches and businesses put up “mitten trees,” which contain paper mitten ornaments with the age, gender and wish list for an Appanoose County child in need. People choose a mitten, purchase the gifts on the list and return them to the tree location. Operation Santa committee members pick up the gifts. This year, the committee consisted of 15 people of diverse religious backgrounds.
Work for the committee and community volunteers began well before the trees were put up.
In late summer, the committee began accepting applications. The Sieda Community Action office helped by verifying the size and financial situation of each family. Then, the work of making the mitten ornaments began. Mercy Medical Center-Centerville donated green and red paper and printed the text for the mittens. Centerville Community Betterment clients cut out the mittens. Committee members assembled the ornaments and prepared them for the trees.
Meanwhile, businesses and nonprofits worked to collect cold-weather items to add to Operation Santa boxes. The First Lutheran church in Centerville hosted a blanket drive and Orschelen’s Farm and Home Supply offered Operation Santa blankets at cost for $2 apiece. The Centerville Rotary Club donated 200 winter coats — 20 of which went to local schools so that, should a student outgrow a coat or have a need for one after Christmas, they can have access to a free coat.
Starting Dec. 7, volunteers raced to the old Mr. Movies building in town to organize gifts and assemble packages before recipients were to pick them up four days later. Committee members used monetary donations to buy gifts for children whose mittens were not picked up or returned. Then, they filled the room with boxes — donated by Wells Manufacturing Corp in Centerville — leaving labyrinth-like rows for volunteers to move about and sort items. Hills Sanitary provided free trash service throughout the week.
Some of the volunteers were former recipients who worked their way out of poverty and wanted to give back. “That’s what this is all about,” Bogle said.
One evening, pre-confirmation students from St. Mary’s helped out alongside Methodist youths. Joann McLin, co-coordinator of religious education for St. Mary’s, loves the opportunity for her students to volunteer with youths from other Christian faiths. “In my opinion, we need to do that more.”
Among the school athletic teams helping out was the Centerville football team. One athlete told Bogle he’d been deeply impacted by the volunteer work. “You only get what you give,” Bogle recalled the youth saying to her. Sharing the joy of volunteering is one of Bogle’s favorite aspects of the project. The athlete told her he wants to volunteer again next year.
Schofield served as principal of Seton Catholic Elementary School in Ottumwa before coming to Centerville six years ago. She sees Operation Santa as a reflection of the community’s heart — not just at Christmas but throughout the year. Whether it’s packing lunches for impoverished students to take home on weekends or working to create more jobs, “they do it because it’s the right thing to do. Everyone works with everyone else, and it’s a faith-based effort. People in Centerville do their work with God in mind — and their work is taking care of people with the resources God has provided to them.”