Bags of blessings: Service project in Waupaca benefits homeless shelter

WAUPACA — A donation drive at St. Mary Magdalene Church brought in 150 bags of items for Waupaca County’s only 24-hour homeless shelter.

Youth who are enrolled in the parish’s religious education program gathered in the church’s Fellowship Hall and packed the blue, drawstring bags with snacks, personal hygiene items, socks, hats, mittens and a prayer note on Jan. 27. Community and parish members donated the items.

Delilah Kulinski, left, gathers personal hygiene items for Phillip Sasman as he fills a Blessing Bag for distribution Jan. 29 at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Waupaca. (Angie Landsverk | For the Compass)

On Jan. 29, Kelly McKibben delivered the bags to Mission of Hope House in New London. Some parish and family members helped.

McKibben is a religious education coordinator at the parish, and the Blessing Bag project was her idea. She described it as being “born of the Holy Spirit.”

St. Mary Magdalene Parish has a long-standing tradition of involving its students in community service projects, she said.

Providing such opportunities was something the religious education program worked to expand during the 2019-20 school year. “We never had exposure for our little ones,” McKibben said.

That changed during last school year, when the first through fourth graders raised between $200 and $300 for Waupaca’s Agape Help Center through a penny challenge.

McKibben coordinated a pen pal experience between the fifth and sixth graders and residents of Waupaca’s Bethany Home. That took place from October through February, culminating in a meet-and-greet between residents and students last Valentine’s Day. “The kids loved it,” McKibben said. “The residents loved it.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this school year’s religious education program became a virtual one.

The sixth through eighth graders meet via Zoom on Wednesday evenings. Parents lead the discussion for each grade level and McKibben checks in to see how each group is doing. “Much of the first semester curriculum was about who they are, what is their purpose,” she said.

This includes teaching them that “we are the ones to help the greater good,” McKibben said.

During one Zoom session, she asked the students if they wanted to do a community service project if she could arrange one safely. They said “yes,” and McKibben decided on Blessing Bags as a way to provide something to people in need, particularly this time of year.

“I wanted to put it out to the parish and immediate community,” she said. “I was searching for something local. Mission of Hope House is the only 24-hour homeless shelter in the county.”

When McKibben called Mission of Hope House and shared her idea about the students, “they loved it,” she said.

The Blessing Bags will be for those who stay in the shelter, as well as for those who do not. McKibben, who said she learned that many people are embarrassed and afraid to ask for help, started planning for the project before Christmas.

She thought this was a good time of year to seek donations for the shelter.

Many people give to nonprofits around Christmas, “but what happens when that time runs out?” she said. McKibben sees this service project as a way to fill up the center’s supplies again.

“We had one family donate close to $500 in supplies,” she said. Others gave monetary donations to help fill in any gaps.

Vicky Giacalone, a member of the parish and a sales representative for Catholic United Financial, donated 150 “Gather4Good” bags.

Catholic United Financial started Gather4Good in 2010, and has assembled and donated 41,000 personal kits at events in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, Giacalone said. She also helped pack Blessing Bags at St. Mary Magdalene.

McKibben invited the high school seniors to participate as well. The fact that the project involved youth, parish members, the community and Catholic United Financial was an example of collaboration, she said.

“It’s a nice project, and we appreciate all the people who donated. We appreciate the kids doing it during the pandemic,” said Fr. Xavier Santiago, administrator of St. Mary Magdalene Parish.

McKibben said it was about “reaching out and being Christ to others.”

“That is the way the Holy Spirit works, and kudos to the Holy Spirit for moving us in the right direction,” she added.