Every Christmas, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle provides gifts for families who otherwise could not afford them through their Adopt-a-Family program. This year, the program collected gifts for 62 families, 90 guests of the parish’s homeless ministry, 25 children from the DC General Family Shelter, and shared gifts for four L’Arche homes, where people with and without developmental disabilities live in community.
The Christmas program is a part of a yearlong Adopt-A-Family effort at the parish, which collects backpacks with school supplies at the beginning of the school year, and gift cards for food on Thanksgiving and Easter. The Christmas program has grown over time, and now in addition to individuals, there are many companies who adopt families, or sometimes several. For each family, sponsors provide two gifts per adult, three gifts per child, and two shared household gifts.
Pillsbury Law Firm, which is down the street from St. Matthew’s, adopted eight families this year. While the families asked for necessities like coats, gloves and hats, one of the lawyers from the firm called and asked if he could provide each of the three children from one family with a bicycle and a helmet. When the program called the mother of the family to check if she had space to accommodate the bikes, the mother cried and told them that her children had wanted bicycles for years, but she thought it was too much to ask for.
“It makes you step back and think, you have so much, so it is time to give back to those who don’t,” said Pamela Quinn, who has served as the coordinator for the Christmas program for the past five years.
Quinn remembers hearing the parish ask for volunteers for their service programs during Mass and thinking to herself, “I don’t have time for that,” since she was managing a busy career and raising five kids. But one day, she decided to make time, and started volunteering every other Monday at the parish’s breakfast for the homeless. She soon got involved with Adopt-A-Family, which she immediately fell in love with. Before long, her whole family was volunteering, and she thinks it inspired her children, who are now adults, to go on to do service on their own.
“Each year it makes my Christmas and I get back so much more than anything I give to these families,” she said.
Families usually request gifts like socks, shoes, or gift cards for gas and food. This year, one family requested a blender. When the volunteer delivered the gifts to the family and the mother opened it up, she began to cry because she hadn’t expected such a nice blender. Then, one of the first things that she used the blender for was to cook a meal for her church.
“It is a gift that has double power. She uses it for her family, but she also uses it to help others,” said Lilliam Collmann, who has been volunteering with the program for about 10 years. “That is an example of the gratitude that is multiplied through one gift.”
Collmann’s job is to do the initial interviews with families to learn what they need, and then deliver some of the gifts to families who do not have transportation to pick them up. Through delivering the gifts, Collmann said she gets to see the conditions that the families are living in, but also how much the gifts brighten their Christmas.
Because she was once a refugee herself, moving here from Cuba 55 years ago, Collmann said she can relate to the families she talks to both because of her fluency in Spanish, and because “I know what it feels like to be displaced.”
Collmann and her sister moved to the United States initially without her parents, who joined them later. They were relocated to New York, where a Presbyterian church adopted them by helping them find jobs and a place to live. Collmann is still in contact with the people who helped her family.
“When you run into people like that who make such a difference in your life you don’t forget and you want to give back. You want to repeat that model,” she said. “That is why I always gravitate to that program of helping families. I know in many cases it gives you such stability and support to know that there is someone there who can help you in the time of need or crisis.”