Starting when I was very young, my cousins and I would travel down to my aunt's house in Kentucky to visit her. She was a missionary nun, working with people who live relatively close to me (5 hours away) but who live a very different lifestyle than I was raised in.
I was not, by any means, raised in a household with a lot of money. However, I was far from being poor, and really never had to do without anything (unless it was something my parents thought I didn't need!). But, I was like most normal kids who dreamt of living in a world with endless money flowing, allowing for my every "need" to be met.
Perhaps that was part of our (my cousins and I) parent's plan -- to help us understand our "poorness". We never ever thought of it that way -- we thought of it as a vacation, and sometimes wondered if it was a "recruiting" trip (our aunt is a nun!), but never really considered the part about teaching us a life lesson.
During those times, Sister Marge would introduce us to a variety of people that lived in her little town of Booneville, Kentucky. People our age (at the time early tweens), people older, and people much much older. We would spend a week with her and work in her store (in the early years) sorting shoes, or hanging up clothes, or whatever else she needed done. In the later years, I don't really remember ever having special jobs other than having fun with her!
During the week, she would take us with her on her "home visits". When she moved to Booneville, there was no Catholic church in the county -- but they knew there were Catholics. Her job was to find them and get them back into a church. This in and of itself was a challenge, because many people in town didn't have a mode of transportation! What that entailed was that Saturday afternoon, we would load up in her van and start the "bus route" to pick people up -- the real way to see where she lived. We would drive up and down mountains, around curves, into hollers, all in an effort to get people to church. We would be on paved roads, dirt roads, gravel roads -- whatever it took to get people to church. I learned a lot in those days. I learned about persistence, but also what it meant to do the Lord's work -- to be His hands and feet. (I also learned that mass in Booneville didn't start until everyone was there!)
I also learned that the people of Owsley county are some of the nicest and friendliest people on earth. Even though they are very different from me in where we live, the living conditions we have -- they are wonderful people and very thankful for the life that has been given to them.
During my college years, (and maybe high school -- I don't remember for sure!) -- my mom and I would spend time at Christmas going down to visit Marge. She would have a daylong event where people could come in, "shop" for presents for their children and families, and return home. I think at one point we even wrapped the gifts for people! There was no exchange of money. The items that were available were donated (and were new things), and the people would arrive and be given a point value that they were able to spend on each child in the family. It was super fun to help each parent find the perfect present for their child, especially knowing that many of these families would have no Christmas without this opportunity.
Somewhere along the line -- with marriage and having children -- I ran out of time at Christmas to take the time to go and help her. I never forgot about it, though -- and would think of everyone each year when I knew the shopping opportunity was going to happen.
A couple of years ago, I started thinking it was getting to be time for me to start going back. Earlier this year, I made the decision that this was the year to go back. Oddly enough, earlier this week I had to fight back feelings and thoughts that I didn't have time to do this to force myself to go!
My brother, Joe, had mentioned to me that he went last year and fully intended to go back this year. I said that we could ride together if he had room, and mentioned that I wanted to bring one or two of my kids with me. We looked at everyone's schedules and quickly realized that Sarah would be the only one of our kids that would be able to travel with me.
We left Wednesday at noon and began our journey down. Pretty uneventful trip down (thank goodness!), and we were greeted by the smiling faces of Sister Marge, and her sister friend, co-worker, whatever you want to call her -- Sister Angie. Both beautiful women, inside and out.
When we walked into Marge's house, I was immediately taken back several years. There sat a woman, Mary, who had been there every time I had been there for Christmas years before. When I asked, she said she's been helping Marge for 35 years, and hasn't missed a one! I was amazed! Her youngest son is 37 and cooks for a retirement home. He is quite the chef! He made us sweet rolls for breakfast and the most amazing garlic bread for lunch. I was in heaven!
In the evening when we arrived, Sister Marge had a little project for us. It involved delivering some presents to some local people which required the assistance of the man in the red suit. Marge thought we would have fun helping out. Joe brought along his son, Ben, who hasn't quite figured out all of the "mysteries of the season", so I volunteered to stay back with him while they took on the task of assisting Santa to deliver these presents.
That would be Sarah, with her cousin, Maria, sitting on her lap! Oh, my gosh, it still sends me giggling when I see it. I found myself still cracking up as I was trying to go to sleep. Apparently, one of the little girls that they were visiting yelled out -- "That isn't Santa, that's a girl! She's wearing girl socks!" Oh, my......
In the morning, we were greeted by a few wonderful sights:
The view outside of the church
Oh, my gosh, the cinnamon sweet rolls!
Sister Marge making breakfast
Years ago (we think 25) my mom made sweatshirts for us to wear as we had our shopping day. I spotted my sweatshirt as I was packing and stuck it with my things, hoping Sarah would wear it (it doesn't seem to fit me like it used to :). She said yes! I thought we would surprise Marge, but she surprised us by wearing hers, too! What a fun thing! It was also a super special way to feel my mom's presence with us, as she would have been there if she could have!
I tried to take a few photos that would show the vast amount of things that people from all over donated. You will see loaded tables, but also look under the tables at the huge amount of things "hidden away". They sort things (all done before we got there) so that new things are put out all day, so each family gets a great variety from which to choose.
The stuffed animal table -- its a little blurry, but certainly shows the choices!
After they leave this area, they are taken to an area to get some food items -- enough to make a yummy Christmas feast -- and then some! I forgot to take a picture of this part -- sorry!
My nephew, Ben, and his new friend, Nick. They are the same age, and could have been brothers. They worked and played together.
Remember early on when I said that Sister Marge always introduced us to new people? Well, this is Ginger, a woman I met many, many years ago, and we were reunited this week. She has such a great spirit. Below, she is modeling a skirt, in case someone wanted it. Such a fun person. It was fun to reconnect with her!
Ben and his friend, Nick, building a fort from boxes when the workload lightened up.
Sarah made a new friend. They were busy playing when I caught this picture.
We were so blessed to be able to help 72 families shop for Christmas! We offered up toys and clothes, stuffed animals and toiletries. In return, we received smiles and hugs, Christmas wishes and much thankfulness. We also received the best gift of all -- a lesson in what Christmas is all about. It's not about what's under the tree -- it's about what's in the manger. It's all about sharing His love.
I'm so thankful that my aunt has devoted her life to Christ, and in turn helped me see His love. It will be a long time before I skip celebrating Christmas with her again!
Magnet I found on a car today -- "Keep Christ in Christmas"