Amber Smith wrapped gifts feverishly for what seemed like a never-ending line of excited children at the Catholic Charities Christmas party.
Ms. Smith was a volunteer at the party held last week at the Helping Hands of St. Louis ministry on Sixth Street in East Toledo. It was her way of giving back for the help extended to her family.
She has received assistance with rent payments and the agency also provided toys for her two children for Christmas, she said.
Catholic Charities helped 65 families through its Project Bethlehem this year. The agency finds sponsors — individuals, businesses, or other churches — to buy toys and household items for its low-income clients.
This year, however, officials decided to invite those same families that received help to give of their time at one of five events at the Helping Hands soup kitchen between Halloween and Christmas.
Pam Belew said Catholic Charities has been paying her rent for several years through the Permanent Supportive Housing program. The 58-year-old Toledo woman handed out warm blankets to children at the Christmas party event as they stood in line to see Santa Claus.
Ms. Belew said she welcomed the opportunity to give back and she also thought it was important to bring her grandson, Cory Belew, 10, along to lend a hand.
“I've always wanted to volunteer doing something and I wanted to give him a little taste of what it's like to volunteer helping people in need,” said Ms. Belew.
This year over 50 percent of the families who received housing assistance and Christmas toys participated in the pilot program and volunteered at one of the events at the soup kitchen, said Andrea Slivka, spokesman for Catholic Charities.
“Participation was encouraged but not mandatory,” she said.
The Permanent Supportive Housing Program assists individuals who have been homeless or living in shelters by paying 70 to 100 percent their housing costs depending on household incomes, Ms. Slivka said.
Catholic Charities is hoping to expand the give-back program next year by offering even more volunteer opportunities.
“We feel this is a great way to enable clients to have ownership in providing those gifts for their children. They might feel some shame in not being able to provide for their children. This helps them have a way to feel they are providing even if they can't pay for the gifts,” she said.
East Toledo resident Jack Johnson took the opportunity to help to prepare the Thanksgiving dinner that was served at Helping Hands. He helped prepare spaghetti and serve about 180 people at the holiday meal.
“I need to give back because they have helped my family so much. Without them I would not have had Christmas for my kids,” said Mr. Johnson.
The 45-year-old father of six children said he has faced some tough times in recent years and is unable to work because of back surgery. He and his wife have children between the ages of 2 and 18 years old. His family also received rent assistance from Catholic Charities.
“Right now they pay it all. Hopefully this year I can go back to work to pay a portion and maybe all my rent this year,” said Mr. Johnson.
“We are trying to provide a hand-up and not just a handout,” Ms. Slivka said.