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By Anneliese Esparza

 Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, local Catholic communities continued to live out the “Season of Giving,” helping those in need during holiday season.

 Parishes, Catholic schools and Catholic organizations gave back to the community by holding Thanksgiving dinner giveaways, toy drives, fundraisers and more.

 In November, parishes across the Diocese found new ways to ensure that needy families had a Thanksgiving meal to enjoy.

 St. Catherine of Alexandria in Riverside opted for a drive-thru distribution of Thanksgiving baskets with a gift card to buy a turkey and items like boxed stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, canned vegetables and boxed cake mix. The food drive was staffed by teens from their youth ministry. The teen volunteers worked in shifts while assembling the baskets to make social distancing possible and wore protective equipment like masks, face shields and gloves while handing out food.

 If people in need didn’t have a car and couldn’t get a ride to attend the drive-thru food giveaway, the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Organization delivered to their home. 

 Despite the tough economic times that many are going through, St. Catherine received enough parishioner donations to make 275 baskets. 

 “We have a very charitable parish,” said Lance Wiseman, St. Catherine’s Director of Youth Ministry. “We have been doing this food basket giveaway for over 30 years. We have the people who are willing to step up when asked.”

 In the past, St. Catherine’s Thanksgiving food drive was walk-up instead of drive-thru. Food recipients used to be given a chance to write down a prayer intention that was later placed on the altar for Thanksgiving Day Mass. “We’re losing the human touch of seeing the people and having them be happy,” said Wiseman of the new, safer distribution method.

 Still, the important thing is that local families in need got a Thanksgiving dinner. “It’s been nice to have the donations from the parishioners and even some businesses locally, too,” Wiseman added.

 In the small Coachella Valley farming community of Mecca, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe gave about 350 families food for Thanksgiving. Father Francisco Valdavinos, S.T., the church’s pastor, said there was more demand this year because of the pandemic.

 The food was given away via drive-thru and included turkeys as well as basic food staples like rice, beans and vegetables.

 Other parishes, like St. Peter & St. Paul in Alta Loma, gave out grocery store gift cards instead of hosting a Thanksgiving food distribution. The parish raised enough to give 150 families gift cards of either $50, $60 or $70.

 In addition to Thanksgiving related outreach, diocesan Catholics did their best to help families have a joyful Christmas season. Many parishes, including St. Paul the Apostle in Chino Hills and St. Patrick in Moreno Valley, held toy drives, but ran them a little differently this year.

 In a normal year at St. Paul the Apostle, parishioners would take paper angel cutouts hung on a Christmas tree. The paper angel would list the age and gender of the child so that parishioners knew what kind of toy to buy. However, due to pandemic-related precautions, St. Paul removed the paper angel aspect and simply asked parishioners to donate toys or gift cards.

 For their toy drive, St. Patrick set up an Amazon Wish List. Parishioners donated remotely by simply choosing from a list of toys to buy.

 “We didn’t want people out shopping with the directive to stay in place,” said Holly McCann, the parish’s Business Manager. After the parish received the toys from Amazon, they put them in gift bags and handed them out in a drive-thru distribution. 

 The parish gave toys to 50 children from 20 families. Each family was also provided with a grocery store gift card.

 “I was really pleasantly overwhelmed and so thankful at how generous our parishioners were ... everybody’s struggling through this COVID situation, but we really had a lot of people step up and give generously, which is why we were able to meet the needs of these 20 families,” said McCann.

 Parishes weren’t the only ones who helped others this Christmas. Students from St. Peter & St. Paul School reached out to others during the holiday season for their community service projects. Three St. Peter & St. Paul eighth graders collected and donated over 100 jackets to keep the needy warm during the winter months. 

 The eighth graders partnered with Transforming A Life, a non-profit organization that focuses on clothing the homeless and needy. The organization was founded by St. Peter & St. Paul parishioner Zaki Mustafa and his wife, Loretta, who are also on the church’s parish council.

 The students raised money to acquire the jackets, then donated them to Catholic Charities’ Ontario center for distribution. “They took the initiative to solicit to their relatives and their friends to raise the money,” Mustafa said, adding that each student spent about 10 hours on the project. 

 As for the St. Peter & St. Paul seventh graders, they ran a project called Operation Community Cares, in which they assembled and sent 40 care packages to soldiers overseas.

 Meanwhile, at Catholic Charities San Bernardino & Riverside Counties Christmas outreach programs included food baskets, a toy drive and Adopt-A-Family. In the Adopt-A-Family program, donors “adopt” an entire low-income family by giving the family members items such as clothes, toys and food.

 While there are always people that need a helping hand, the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn have only grown the scope of poverty in the community.

 “We’ve received a good amount of community support during the pandemic from those who have been less impacted from the pandemic to help the most vulnerable who have been absolutely impacted,” said Ken Sawa, CEO and Executive Vice President of Catholic Charities San Bernardino & Riverside Counties.

 While Sawa is hopeful that the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine will improve the state of the economy, he said it will take a long time for many to get back on their feet.

 “Low-income families are generally the hardest hurt in any sort of economic downturn and the last to recover. So, we anticipate that there will be ongoing need for Catholic Charities’ various services well into 2021,” said Sawa.

 To donate to Catholic Charities, visit their website www.ccsbriv.org. 

 Anneliese Esparza is a freelance writer and a parishioner of St. Martha Church in Murrieta.