In preparation for Christmas, parishioners from Holy Rosary, Medford, picked up, filled and returned 129 Boxes of Joy. In addition, the church was a collection center for the Northern Wisconsin area. The gift boxes are given to poor children in a ministry organized by Cross Catholic Outreach. (Submitted photo)

For Catholics, Advent and Christmas are a time of year for sharing that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

Many pull out their “Keep Christ in Christmas” magnetic bumper stickers and light up the long winter evenings with Nativity scenes on their lawn.

However, in places where Jesus’ birth is the principle observance – and his life and message are the only gifts a parent’s meager earnings can buy – millions of children are invited into the goodwill and wondrous joy of Christmas through the works of Christian charitable organizations.

Cross Catholic Outreach’s Boxes of Joy program is one opportunity for children to experience the joy of gifting a little Christmas magic.

Holy Rosary Parish in Medford has worked with the initiative for three years; 2020 is the second year they have been a drop-off location. This entails receiving Boxes of Joy from regional parishes, schools and groups, which Holy Rosary volunteers then pack and coordinate with Cross Catholic representatives to ship to a distribution center. From there, Boxes of Joy are sent out for delivery to children in Haiti, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

“Having students and families pack a shoebox with items for children in another country that may not receive any gifts at Christmas helps our students learn about helping those in need,” said Michael Bub, Holy Rosary’s Religious Education Coordinator. “Many of our students might be disappointed to only get a shoebox with a small toy, some candy and toothpaste as their Christmas gift.”

What Bub has witnessed over these three years is that gift-giving has evolved.

Parents aren’t just writing a check or entering credit card information on a website. They are taking their children shopping for gifts and treats they might want to receive but are excited to give to a child in need. Some families choose to pack two boxes – one for a boy and one for a girl.

“For many of our families,” Bub added, “The real challenge is trying to get all they want to send to fit in a shoebox.”

Erica Kvak, development officer with Cross Catholic, is the Diocese of Superior’s contact for the project. Boxes of Joy was the first project her family participated in with the organization, even before she was employed by them. What struck her most was how tangible the outreach is.

Kvak commented how hard it is, both for children and adults, to wrap your head around what life is like for children living in real poverty.

Watching her active and easily distracted son sit still and put so much care and attention into packing a gift box deeply impacted her. She felt her children could grasp the concept of a child not receiving a gift better than a child dealing with hunger or homelessness.

“Box of Joy puts it in a perspective that they can understand,” she said. “As they mature and get older, hopefully they will keep that giving spirit and will understand the bigger needs out there.”

Kvak’s job is to connect parishioners, students and families with projects Cross Catholic Outreach coordinates. She met Diocese of Superior’s School Superintendent Peggy Schoenfuss in 2019, and through that connection Boxes of Joy was promoted to the 14 diocesan Catholic schools.

“It’s a very good program and over 95 percent of all proceeds go to the needy,” Schoenfuss said.

At the Medford school and parish, Boxes of Joy provided a “great way to kick off Advent,” according to Bub, with students and families working together to provide Christmas gifts for someone they don’t know.

It was encounter with those unknown people that lead Kvak to her current job. Her husband went on a mission trip with Cross Catholic Outreach, and through the connections he made with their staff and projects, his wife was stirred to want to do more with her career.

Cross Catholic, according to their 2019 reports, serves in 28 countries on four continents supporting 285 projects with the help of participating Catholics. Needs covered by the projects include helping vulnerable children; providing nutritious food, clean water and safe homes; giving opportunities for microenterprise and education; and offering medical aid and disaster relief.

Kvak admits she had been terrified about going on a mission trip for quite some time. With some travel required by her job, she saw firsthand the work Cross Catholic does in underserved communities. She and her husband decided their two teenagers need to attend a mission trip overseas before they start college.

Their 11th-grade daughter was planning to join a Cross Catholic mission trip with others from their home parish in the Diocese of Mobile, Alabama. For now, COVID-19 has put that international endeavor on hold.

The pandemic has affected Kvak’s job-related travel and she is working more from home for the Florida-based charity. Her last trip was to Oshkosh in March, the week before lockdowns went into place.

Thanks to technology, she can continue making connections within the “beautiful Catholic communities that understand the needs.”

Needs that, Kvak said, “are always there but even more so now. I am seeing how the Catholic community is stepping up, giving sacrificially. And that makes my heart happy.”

Those moments offset some of the more difficult realities of connecting generous hands and hearts with the constantly changing needs where Cross Catholic works, especially under the current circumstances.

Adaptation and flexibility are the norms.

Kvak spoke of tremendous challenges in Guatemala, where the government has almost completely shut everything down in a country hit by back-to-back hurricanes.

“Some of our partners have had to adjust what their needs are – preparing baskets with basic necessities for people not allowed to leave their homes. White flags were being hung outside their doors. Not as a sign of surrender, but because they were totally out of food.”

Cross Catholic Outreach partners have been given special permission to travel the closed road systems to ensure food and other necessities were getting to people who needed them.

The organization is endorsed by the Vatican and has a board of directors and advisory council comprised of one cardinal, four archbishops and six bishops.

In order to effectively meet their goal of “mobilizing the global Catholic Church to transform the poor and their communities materially and spiritually for the glory of Jesus Christ,” Kvak said that Cross Catholic works directly with bishops in the countries they serve.

“Because we want to work with projects that the local bishop endorses and that we know is working toward what our mission is – to help people, but also to transform and make their lives better.”

Kvak added, “This was a difficult year for many, many different reasons … and it has been so heartwarming to encounter project leaders, some who have even gotten COVID, never say ‘I can’t continue,’ instead, ‘Just give me some extra time.’”

“The hearts that are serving this year have blown me away,” Kvak shared. “We are so thankful, so thankful for everyone that has joined us.”