When she was five years old, Michaela West found an unopened present a few months after her Dec. 23 birthday. Instead of reacting with excitement at the surprise of a present, West became sad and said, “I get too much stuff."
She asked her parents if for her next birthday, she could ask people to give presents to kids in homeless shelters instead of to her. From that birthday on, the family collected and delivered “Christmas Eve Boxes,” which is something that West received every year. They include new pajamas, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a holiday book or movie, popcorn, a toy, and small wrapped gifts for the child to give their parents on Christmas day.
This tradition continued until last year, when the third and fourth grade classes at St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School in Beltsville joined together to collect 44 of the boxes as a part of their “Walk with Francis” pledge. West decided that she wanted to do something new as a part of her own pledge, and came up with the idea to bring supplies to the homeless.
She received $250 from the Disney Channel’s “Joy Maker Challenge,” which allowed her to get supplies and compile bundles. When she delivered the bundles for the first time last Christmas, she decided that she wanted to do the same thing more often, so she asked her principal, Zach Hooker, if she could start a “Bundles of Love” club at St. Joseph’s. He said yes.
Hooker said he loves that “the idea for the club came about from students wanting to do something bigger than themselves and serve the community,” which is a big part of the Catholic faith of the school.
Now in fifth grade, West was recently honored with a Prudential Spirit of Community Award for her volunteer work. Two finalists from each state and the District of Columbia were selected out of 29,000 nominations nationwide to receive the award for their dedication to community service. West is one of two students in the Archdiocese of Washington to receive the honor.
“I want the homeless to know that they are not forgotten,” she said. Ever since she was a young kid, West remembers walking through the streets of Washington or Baltimore and seeing people sitting in boxes, and would always ask her mom to give them something.
Msgr. Karl Chimiak, St. Joseph’s pastor, noted Michaela’s humility, but said he thought she was the type of young visionary that is “what we need in the Church, now more than ever.”
The students in the Bundles of Love club make packages full of donated items such as toiletries, non-perishable food and clothing, wrapped in a blanket or sleeping bag and tied together with twine, in an effort to prevent unnecessary trash and make every part of the package useful to the people receiving it. They also include the “Angel of God” prayer card in the packages.
“Everybody has an angel that sticks with them, and we want them to know they have one just like we do,” said Justin Owens, a member of the club who is also in the fifth grade.
After the students make the bundles, they go out and walk through the streets to look for people who are homeless and ask them if they want a bundle. They do this roughly every three or four months.
West wrote a letter to Pope Francis, telling him about her project, and received a card and a blessed gold medallion in return. When the pope visited in 2015, she was one of the students who had the opportunity to travel to the Apostolic Nunciature to see him, and while she was there, she even got a hug from the pope.
“He is an inspiration to me because he invites the homeless to eat lunch with him and talk with him,” she said.
The club is continuing to expand, and Michaela and her mom have been contacted by a school and a corporation asking how they can start a chapter of Bundles of Love. They are currently hosting a contest for students in the school to design a logo.
On Nov. 19, the club held a Family Day of Service, extending Bundles of Love into the school’s families and encouraging parents to take a bundle and give it away.
“When you do that, that is when you are hooked,” said Sophia West, Michaela’s mom.
This Easter, they are challenging each school family to make and deliver a bundle of their own.
The club is constantly looking for ways to improve their bundles, and always ask people what else they would like when they do deliveries. They learn something every time they deliver, and try to make each step of the process a learning experience for the kids, said Sophia West. When they go to the grocery store to purchase the food, they make sure to stop and think about how the people receiving the bundle will open the food and whether it is nutritious.
Logan Kess, a fifth grader at the school, said she has learned how important teamwork is in the process.
“I learned that there has to be more than just one person to do it,” she said. When they are wrapping the bundles, they need to have one person hold it together while the other one ties, or else it will all fall apart, she noted.
During Catholic Schools Week, the entire school participated in making Bundles of Love. The students gathered in the parish hall, and each class made a bundle. The students in the club each prayed over the bundles and the students who made them.
“It makes me proud to know there are 8, 9, and 10 year olds out there that see the bigger picture and want to help the world around them,” Hooker said
Following the service activity, the students had an unexpected visitor. A homeless man had been advised to go see Msgr. Chimiak, and happened to walk into St. Joseph’s Church as the school was celebrating Mass.
The man walked up to receive Communion and caught Msgr. Chimiak’s arm, telling him that he needed to see him after Mass. When he did, he told the pastor that he was living out of his car and needed help.
“[The students’] love and their prayers drew this man over to us,” said Michaela’s mom.
Msgr. Chimiak gave him a gift card for food and directed him to pick up one of the “Bundles of Love,” which included a thermal sleeping bag.
“He was so grateful that he wouldn’t freeze in the car,” Msgr. Chimiak said.
Msgr. Chimiak saw this occurrence as a lesson for the students, sent from God. As the man walked up to receive the Eucharist, he was representing Christ in the hungry and the homeless, he said, adding, “The little children have been taught that the poor are Jesus Christ.”