NEOPIT — Not one toy.
Bags of flour, boxes of cereal, cans of vegetables, cases of juice, bundles of blankets, bottles of shampoo — they all came off a bus packed with items for the food pantry at St. Anthony Church in Neopit.
Boxes filled with toothpaste, tissues and toilet paper were carried into the community center Dec. 15 by some of the young people from the parish school and religious education program at Holy Spirit in Kimberly. They’d been collecting them all Advent.
But not a toy was in sight.
Gifts of toys for less fortunate children who live on the Menominee Reservation, located north of Shawano, have been part of the tradition since Holy Spirit began this Advent project eight years ago. But in 2017, the needs are different in Menominee County, Wisconsin’s poorest.
‘We need the basics’
“This year we couldn’t afford the luxury of toys,” explained Mary Harte, St. Anthony Parish office manager. “We needed the basics.”
Harte told the 28 youngsters from Holy Spirit who made the trip, “The toiletries and food you brought mean a great deal to our community. This is worth more than toys to some families.”
Sarah Elmer, youth minister at Holy Spirit, said that in the past, collections for Neopit had included food as well as toys — and the switch to life’s necessities this year provided a great teaching opportunity.
“We told the kids, ‘Think about what’s on your Christmas list. For some of the people in Neopit, food items take precedence because they really have a need for that.’ That really hit home. The next week we had double the donations.”
Elizabeth Raddatz, 17, a senior at Kimberly High School, was one who got the message. “I can take a lot for granted that others might not have access to,” she said.
A couple of juniors called the project fun: Billy Krieg, 16, said he took part “just to help others and try to make a difference.” Max Treu, also 16, said the Advent collection is now a tradition. “It’s a lot of fun, and it takes a load off (those in need) and makes their holiday better,” he said.
Mary Lisa Carenza Keenan, who volunteers as food pantry coordinator at St. Anthony, went into triage mode once Holy Spirit’s young people began unloading their bus. Food was directed to a table on the right, toiletries to the left, another table for paper products and a separate room for blankets and quilts.
Harte and Deacon Mark Fuller took the group over to St. Anthony Church to see a few of the tribe’s religious artifacts and to explain some of the Menominee traditions that are included in Mass on the reservation, including a smudging rite and prayers of petition presented in English and responded to in the Menominee language.
Deacon Fuller led the young people in the Menominee “Prayer to the Great Spirit.”
Elmer emphasized the purpose of this part of the bus trip to the group: “So you can see the universality of the Catholic Church and realize the Catholic Church is for every culture.”
Back to the community center, there was a buzz in the room as the Holy Spirit youngsters enthusiastically sorted the food and other goods they’d brought, then lugged them around the corner to the food pantry. They turned more than a few empty shelves into fully loaded ones.
Food Pantry renaissance
The food pantry itself began a renaissance three years ago when its original site burned down. In its new location, Keenan revised the way it operated so that it provides food distribution with dignity, she explained.
“Now it’s kind of like going to the grocery store,” she said. Each month 25 to 35 families can get the food and supplies they need while walking among the shelves in the two-room pantry.
Keenan pointed out that several parishes and individuals regularly help keep St. Anthony food pantry supplied. St. Bernadette in Appleton, St. Joseph/Holy Family in Phlox, St. Thomas More in Appleton and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Green Bay all hold food drives or donate gifts.
“We are so very fortunate that these parishes, as part of their social justice ministry, fill our shelves so we can do our social justice ministry,” Keenan said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”