Healing the Third Wound: Care for the Children

Over the last several years St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish has made an effort to reach out to neighborhood children through their own programs and those inspired by the national Angel Tree Ministries. 2006 was the fourth year for the St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish Christmas Angel Tree. It takes place during Advent time before Christmas. Initially, this popular parish outreach to children came about as a suggestion from parishioner Eileen Clark.

Specifically, children are invited to a Christmas Angel Tree party because they have a parent who is in prison. At Christmas Angel Tree 2006, St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish hosted about 50 children and their families. A total of 624 youngsters were served in the wider program throughout many parts of Baltimore City. The St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish Christmas Angel Tree outreach committee puts up an artificial plaster cast angel that has been made by Ms. Ginger Peloquin. It is put up in the left front side of the church and adorned with small paper tree ornaments that bear the name, age, and gender of a child. These children, in conjunction with their families, request a specific kind of Christmas gift. Parishioners fulfill the desire of the participating children and their families to enter into the Christmas celebration by going up to the Angel Tree, selecting an ornament, and signing a tracking list under the direction of the parish Angel Tree committee. Each parishioner gets the child a gift and drops it off to the parish committee. There is a $25 limit.

Frank Collins has seen the Gospel spirit of Christmas come to life during the actual Christmas Angel Tree Party. Held several days before Christmas, the children come to the parish hall party to get their respective gifts. There, Santa Claus greets the children and some food is served as well. People unable to attend are contacted to pick up their gift at St. Joseph’ Monastery Rectory. In some cases the committee delivers the gifts to the families. Collins noticed that the event has seen the return of several families each year. Still each year there are always new faces. There is an overall sense of celebration that combines the joy of Christmas gifts and the birthday of Jesus. It is open to people of any religious denomination. Sometimes more parishioners wish to participate in the program than there are recipients. Collins also has found that members of the parish find it so worthwhile to give back and contribute to the larger community. It is a way of seeing people as people and not just a footnote of interest. In most recent years, some people who come late on the scene cannot get an ornament tree for a child. In that case, they often join with those who hear about the program from outside the parish and decide to participate by giving a financial donation to help defray expenses for the actual Christmas Angel Tree Party.

While it is true that the children and families in the Christmas Angel Tree program are not weekly parishioners, I had the personal experience seeing how the event brought sacramental healing to one family. In one instance, participation in the program was the impetus for eight members of one extended family to be baptized at St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish where they continue to practice their faith!

Follow-up programs to the Christmas Angel Tree outreach program has led St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish to invite these children and their families to a parish Easter Egg Hunt, the Annual Parish Picnic at the end of the summer at Patapsco Park, the Halloween Party, and the Summer Day Camp known as St. Joseph’s Kids for Jesus Summer Program.

2005 was the first year for St. Joseph’s Kids for Jesus Summer Program. Sister Georgia Kraning, SSND, a second grade teacher at St. Agnes Parish Catholic grammar school in Catonsville, Maryland has been the catalyst behind the program. She remembers that it came into being after reflecting on her experience as an educator. It was a way to reach out to children in the summer when they were out of school. Precisely, the last several years had led her to notice that casual greetings between many adults in the city of Baltimore were not always happy and cordial. Furthermore, she began to observe that this mood was entering the everyday life of children as well. They were not always happy. Admittedly a naturally outgoing person, Sister Kraning was most disturbed by the fact that her casual hello to these children was often met by a response, which showed them to be ambivalent, or in some cases threatened by the notion that an unknown person was entering their world.

After reflection and prayer she came up with a new idea. Maybe St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish might be in a basic position to make a change in this urban culture. Always believing in the giving image of holy mother church, it made perfect sense to her that a church sponsored outreach program could bring such blessings into the life of neighborhood children. In other words, she thought that if she could get at least two children together to have fun then that would dispel the image of fear. Moreover, if done correctly, she thought there was the real possibility the children of any religious belief might embrace a sense of hope, self-appreciation, and self-esteem. Overall this was first and foremost a human question. Her thinking was that sponsorship by St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish would be a natural way to link the understanding of God to the program. Again, to be sure, fun and human respect were certainly the needed first step. The operating principle was that if you gain self-respect and appreciate others then violence would cease. Everyone knows it is the violence that has to stop. Furthermore, it was her hope that these children and the adults who might participate would come to see the Monastery Parish as a place of safety and refuge in their neighborhood and city.

Right from the start Sister Georgia Kraning knew the summer program had to be free of charge. She says that Father Murphy was in complete agreement. Parents were overjoyed with this decision. It signaled to them that money was not to be a hurdle for their pre-teen and largely elementary school children to participate. In 2005 the program was two weeks long and went from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. There were about 25 children and 25 volunteers. The schedule included circle time, a time of self-appreciation, pledge of allegiance to the flag, arts and crafts, time for play on the swings or kick ball or dodge ball, and several days where they could play under the sprinkler. There was time for snacks and lunch. 2005 also included a field trip to the Baltimore Aquarium. Much to her satisfaction, Sister Kraning found that a good number of the children liked Jesus songs since so many of them came from a Baptist or more fundamental Christian background. It made them happy singing such basic songs. In 2006 the program essentially kept the same schedule and expanded to three weeks. There were 65 to 70 students and 25 volunteers. Some of the volunteers were high school students who were fulfilling their service component for the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. Events for the children in 2006 included a visit from Reptile Man who taught the children to appreciate animals, and a visit to the children from the Baltimore Fire and Police Departments, and a field trip to the Baltimore Science Center. In 2007 there is every hope that they will reach their self-imposed limit of 65 to 70 children and 25 volunteers. Plus a new educational component will be included. Enoch Pratt Library on Wheels will probably make a visit and volunteers will allow any students who wish to read to develop that skill during their playtime. Many of the children have poor reading skills and they themselves desired to improve in this area.

In 2005 and 2006 more than 95% of the children were African-American. Sister Kraning is pleased that the program gained local notice. Publicity was key. Flyers were distributed throughout the Irvington neighborhood; a large program banner was seen on Frederick Ave. and Old Frederick Road, which generated interest. Finally, information was published in the Catonsville Times and the Baltimore Catholic Review, which is the Catholic paper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Irvington does not have a local paper. Pleasing was the fact that people and teachers from St. Agnes School helped as volunteers and donated craft goods and even food for lunches. It costs about $100 to sponsor each individual child for the entire three-week period. Donations for play, food, and assorted activities are always in need. Another benefit of this program is that diverse people in the parish have been drawn together. When the summer session came to an end, volunteers and people from the parish enjoyed sharing stories as they gathered around the program photo bulletin board that was put up at all three weekend masses.

The St. Joseph’s Kids for Jesus Summer Program has taught Sister Kraning that in so many cases these days it is the grandparents who bring children to church. Making it all worthwhile for her is being in a store and having the small children call out her name and drag the person with them to meet her. That act alone was exactly why she wanted to have the program. Kids smile and don’t live in fear. They are excited about something and want to share in a positive way. Again she believes that “if we reach out to the neighborhood then the maybe the neighborhood will be a more peaceful place to live.” St. Joseph’s Kids for Jesus Summer Program provides children an opportunity to develop a “kinder edge to life.”