'Miracle on McClay' gives hope to needy families at Christmas

In the gymnasium at St. Charles Community College, a sea of boxes -- filled with brightly wrapped presents, food and basic necessities -- were numbered and lined in perfect order as they waited for their recipients. Outside, rows of bicycles and a pile of new Christmas trees were poised and ready to go.

Just before 8 on an overcast Sunday morning, the cars started to arrive. Six cars every five minutes. Some people were welled with tears; others hugged volunteers as the thought sank in that this was going to be a good Christmas after all.

Over the course of several hours, more than 500 families and individuals in need came through the line and filled their cars with the generosity that countless people gave through the Adopt-A-Family program at Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service.

Thirty-three years ago, Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, which started as the social service team of the then-new Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish in St. Charles, began helping families at Christmas at the site of its original address on McClay Street. It was called the "Miracle on McClay" and over the years has grown to the point it had to be moved to the nearby community college.

The program begins in the fall when families request to be "adopted." In October, they are matched with churches, social groups, businesses and local organizations who wish to adopt them. The program culminates over a three-day weekend in mid-December, when gifts are collected, sorted and distributed. Volunteers also hand-deliver items to 120 seniors who can't easily leave their homes.

"We have families in sizes one through 12," said Yvonne Tihen, Adopt-A-Family chairperson. In addition to gifts and a Christmas dinner, families with children receive a gift card to purchase new shoes. Those who request a bike -- there were 380 to distribute this year -- get one. Same goes for a Christmas tree, with all the trimmings.

"We make darn good and sure that when they leave they're taken care of," Tihen said.

Recipients are direct clients of the Care Service or come through other organizations such as Head Start and Parents as Teachers. Some of the stories include a 2-year-old boy, born with numerous disorders, including several skeletal abnormalities. Tihen called him a "bright little guy," and he'll receive an iPad this Christmas to help him with his developmental needs. Another family recently took in two foster children and did not have much to give them. They, too, received several boxes of goodies.

Tihen said the Care Service has seen an increase in the number of seniors in need. "Seniors who can hardly pay their bills," she said. "I'm seeing homeless seniors every month now -- two, three and four a month." The Care Service provides rent, utility and mortgage assistance through its Housing Assistance program.

Loyal Order of Squirrels

Bernie McNamee and about half a dozen other guys were keeping a watchful eye over the rows of bikes. McNamee and his friends are members of The Loyal Order of Squirrels, a local club that provides support for the elderly, disabled and needy children of St. Charles County.

McNamee, who's known as the "head squirrel," said the club has been fixing up bikes for the Adopt-A-Family program the past 14 years. "I've got nine people who work two days a week for three months," he said.

Donated bikes come in from all over, including businesses such as MasterCard and The Home Depot, as well as local churches. "Almost all of them are repairable bikes," he said. "We take three bikes and make two bikes out of them. We may switch out a seat on one, or put pedals on it. We've made 24 pickups over the past three months." Other bikes are donated to a homeless shelter in Wentzville and to foreign exchange students at Lindenwood University.

The Loyal Order of Squirrels, which has about 50 active members, was the result of a discussion among a group of friends at a bar more than 30 years ago, said McNamee. "We didn't want to be part of a national group where we had to abide by all their rules and kick back money to a national organization," he said. "So we decided to form our own club. Our charter only allows us to help people in St. Charles County."

The name, he said, came about when the group was going through the list of animals -- with the elks, moose and many others already taken, McNamee said it came down to the cobras and the squirrels. "We thought we could have a lot of fun with the squirrels name," he said. "Our treasurer is called the keeper of the nuts. We've had a lot of fun with that."

Three generations of help

Kristen Merseal sat against the wall of the gym, occupying her three little children as she waited for the next family to arrive. Merseal, who was helping load donations, has been volunteering with the program for 26 years -- since her parents, Bob and Jane Ruhland, started bringing her along when she was 6 years old.

"For me this kind of starts the Christmas season, doing good and giving back," said the parishioner of St. Joseph in Cottleville. "It makes the holidays seem more real. It's what the Christmas spirit is all about."

It's what she hopes her daughters, Caitlin, 4 years, Lizzie, 23 months, and Alaina, 9 months, -- the third generation -- will learn when as they come along to help. "To see the teamwork and commitment -- you see the same people volunteer each year," Merseal said. "High schoolers give up their time, college students come in. Everyone just comes together to pull it off. It's kind of chaotic, but it works."

Christmas wishes

More than 400 St. Patrick Center clients and their families also will have a merry Christmas, thanks to those who donated to the Christmas Wishes sponsorship program.

The Catholic Charities federation agency noted that many clients are impoverished and have little or no money to purchase Christmas gifts for their children, and will be celebrating their first Christmas in their new homes. Clients receive a minimum of two gifts per person in their families. Gifts were to be distributed Dec. 17 and 18.

Monetary donations for the Christmas Wishes program can still be made. Visit www.stpatrickcenter.org or call (314) 802-0700. 

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