Commentary : The shelter began looking for a better way for donors and shelter guests to experience sharing and giving. And letting parents take an active role in choosing specific gifts for specific loved ones seems to be working. : Reshaping the Spirit of Giving Could Be Best Gift of All

Joe Carroll, a Roman Catholic priest, is president of the St. Vincent de Paul Center in downtown San Diego

Each of us faces Christmas in a different way, but there is one unifying thought: Christmas is a time of giving. Whether we exchange grab-bag gifts with friends and fellow employees or go shopping for special family presents, we are preparing to give greetings and gifts. The malls and stores will be crowded, the post office will have long lines and longer hours for its employees. It just seems that everyone is giving.

I know that we at the St. Vincent de Paul Center experience the tremendous outpouring of this spirit of giving in a unique way--with food drives, clothing and blanket drives, cash donations, toys for children and people waiting to give of their time and themselves to add something extra to their own Christmas spirit.

Last year was our first Christmas in the new St. Vincent de Paul Joan Kroc Center for the homeless after four years of being in a different shelter each year, and it was nice to know that we finally had a permanent place to celebrate Christmas.

I have to admit it was a glorious Christmas. We had gifts galore for our guests--especially the children--great meals for all, and we provided shelter for more than 1,000 people at Golden Hall and St. Vincent's. People from all walks of life donated their time, talent and gifts of cash and food. There were 62 Christmas parties for children. It certainly was the busiest and most meaningful Christmas I had ever experienced.

Yet, something bothered all of us. Something was wrong.

This collective feeling was experienced by some members of the Ladies of Charity Auxiliary to me after last Christmas' hectic activities. For five years, the Ladies of Charity had played host to the annual Children's Christmas Party, where Santa Claus gives gifts to every child at the center. Everyone seemed happy, yet the Ladies of Charity said, "Something is wrong!"

They were right, but we just couldn't define it. The staff and volunteers felt a certain void at the center of the festivities and gift giving. After New Year's, we caught our breath a little and looked back on the wonderful (and countless) events we had given San Diego's homeless, and how much they had received from donors throughout the city and county.

There it was, loud and clear: "How much we had given them." We were the center of the giving. Our guests were recipients, and they were almost passive. The Christmas programs, while providing gifts and entertainment, were ultimately denying the parents and children the spirit of giving. They weren't sharing in the giving of the holidays.

We began looking for a better way to celebrate Christmas. How could we help everyone experience the real meaning of the holidays--the spirit of giving for both the donors and our shelter guests?

What if the parents could choose gifts for their kids, and for each other, in a sort of country store atmosphere? It seemed like a great solution, but there were some real concerns expressed by both the staff and volunteers. How will our many donors react? After all, they had enjoyed giving directly to the children and the adults. Will we have enough gifts from which they can make selections? How would they choose? And on and on.

We decided to make a procedural change, and we tested it out last Easter. I remembered that when I was a kid, we always got some new clothes at Easter, and I thought it would be great to do the same for the more than 100 children at the center.

The Ladies of Charity and St. Vincent's raised the funds, and took the parents shopping with a set dollar limit for every child in their family. It was an incredible education for us to see how much clothing the parents could buy. They got more for their "allowance" than anyone I have ever seen.

Any apprehension about unwise or uneconomical clothing choices was immediately dispelled. And to see their faces as they dressed their children on Easter Sunday was a wonderful experience. A measure of joy and pride was restored to their lives. They were again giving to their children.

So this year we are planning to have a Christmas Country Store set up where parents and children can select (shop) gifts for each other. They will be able to choose appropriate gifts and wrap them. On Christmas they, not we, will give the gifts directly to their loved ones.

Now both the shelter families and our many donors, and the Ladies of Charity will be able to experience the shared happiness of giving. We will serve more as "go-betweens" for the donors and guests so that the parents can choose gifts for their own children from the gifts that donors give to the center.

All of the donors with whom we have shared this new approach are enthusiastic at the thought that they are reaching beyond the generosity of giving material goods to a realization that they are sharing the spirit of giving, so important to all of us at this time of year as we celebrate the gift of God's son, Jesus.

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