Fulfilling Christmas Wishes, One at a Time

Adopt a Family Christmas Program Provides Meals and Gifts for Families in Need

A bronze plaque hangs outside a gray one-story home in central Phoenix with a phrase in Spanish emblazoned on it. It reads: “In the home where there is faith, there is love. Where there is love, there is peace. Where there is peace, there is God. Where God is, nothing is missing.” Below it is the family’s name, Arenas.

Virginia Arenas lives with her husband, Celestino, their three kids and her mother, Aida, in the home. Last December, as Christmas was approaching and Virginia came to the unfortunate conclusion that she was not going to be able to afford food or gifts for a celebration, she reached out to St. Vincent de Paul. A couple of days later, a truck loaded with food and presents, was outside the home.

The family was referred to St. Vincent de Paul by their daughter’s school principal. They were put in touch with St. Matthew, one of St. Vincent de Paul’s community food pantries, also called “conferences.” St. Vincent de Paul has 88 of these conferences based out of Catholic parishes in Arizona. Volunteers in each conference answer calls for help and visit families in their homes.

“It was a big weight lifted off our shoulders,” Virginia said. “I had been staying up wondering ‘How do I tell my kids we can’t celebrate Christmas?’ St. Vincent de Paul helped us so much.”

Although the program deadline had passed by the time Virginia learned about the program, the volunteers at St. Matthew offered to help after hearing her story.

“I guess you’re supposed to register early,” Virginia said. “But they made it possible for us to get gifts and a turkey.”

During 2013, 6,000 volunteers made almost 49,000 home visits in central and northern Arizona to deliver boxes of food to families, evaluate the need for financial assistance and to give people a chance to have someone with whom to talk.

The Arenas family was part of our Adopt a Family Program, which aims to help families who cannot afford to buy food or gifts for Christmas. The conferences interview the families who want to be adopted and get some information to assess their needs. Sponsors then provide the food and gifts for the participating families.

“It’s a really special Christmas for some of these families,” said Luis Garcia, District 7 President and Vice President of St. Matthew Conference. “These families know you’re trying to help them and do good for them. They feel very grateful.”

Luis, who has been a volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul for seven years, still goes on home visits at least twice a month on Saturday mornings. Although he didn’t meet Virginia and her family in person last Christmas, he reached out to her a few months later to ask what else the family needed.

“I really enjoy doing this,” he said. “It has required a lot of my time, but I was happy to devote it to this. What keeps me going is seeing the children’s joy when we get out of the car with the food boxes.”

Luis said he remembers most of the stories from the many families he has encountered at St. Matthew or the other eight conferences within his district. The Arenas are no exception.

For Christmas, the Arenas received a second food box, besides the one they get every month, a $25 Walmart gift card and a voucher for St. Vincent de Paul’s thrift stores.

Celestino, who has not been able to work for the past three years because of a back injury, said last year was financially the hardest on the family. He needs surgery, he said, and is applying for government assistance.

“Getting the turkey and the gifts was such a big relief,” he said. “We cannot thank St. Vincent de Paul enough.”

Last Christmas, in the middle of the living room stood the same tree the family has been using for years. A big one, Virginia said. And for the first time, she was worried it would stand bare, with no gifts under it.

Vincentians and sponsors made sure that did not happen.

“When the children got up and said ‘Mom, where did these come from?’” she said. “That’s when we understood what this meant.”

Gena McGowan, the principal at St. Matthew’s Catholic School, told Luis about the Arenas. She said the school aims to provide opportunities to all of its students, and because of the close relationship with the food pantry at St. Matthew, it is often a reachable goal.

“St. Matthew’s School has a very strong call to serve the children of our neighborhood,” she said. “The parents are great people and hard workers. Many of them hold two minimum-wage jobs. The kids, like any other kids, have needs.”

Virginia is a good mother who cares for her family, so she was happy to give her information to Luis and the rest of the volunteers at the conference, Virginia said.  

“Our school is a big family,” she said. “If the families have troubles for the holidays, then we’re happy to look for resources to help them.”

Virginia said she hopes the family won’t need help this Christmas, but if they do, she knows she won’t be ashamed to reach out to St. Vincent de Paul.

“Before this, we never had the need to ask for help,” she said. “But they made it such a good experience. Thank you!”