"Elf" Betty Ann Dolan helps Lissette Avellino shop for her children at the St. Stephen Christmas Store, Dec. 8. (GLENDA MEEKINS | FC)

Parish brings Christmas to needy families

WINTER SPRINGS | Lissette Avellino did not know how she was going to handle Christmas this year.

The mother of two left her job in February to take care of her 2-year-old daughter who has special needs and whose legs are inverted inward 90 degrees, making it difficult to walk. A week later, her son, a Pinecrest Elementary student in Sanford, was diagnosed with leukemia. Reduced to one income and with her son in an out of the hospital, bills were mounting.

Aware of their struggles, Sheila Giacomo, a social worker at Pinecrest Elementary, registered the family for St. Stephen’s Christmas Store. For more than 15 years, the St. Stephen Parish in Winter Springs has greeted families in need with coffee, cookies and doughnuts while 240 volunteers with smiling faces help them with childcare, navigate the aisles of toys and get their gifts wrapped and loaded.
When Giacomo told Avellino she would be one of more than 160 families selected to shop at the store, the mother was so overjoyed, she cried.

“It’s so overwhelming and joyous to see how many people love other people so— reaching out with open arms, in pure love,” Avellino said. “It’s amazing.”

Avellino said she fought back tears all day Dec. 8, as she made her way through the aisles with “elf” Betty Ann Dolan. Dolan is a veteran helper and former hospice nurse. She immediately connected to Avellino’s situation.

“Of all the people who have come through the line that I would get, her (story) gives me goosebumps,” Dolan said. “Having my own knowledge of what she’s going through — trying to get help and pay the hospital bills. Although her son isn’t in hospice, I can relate. God puts me where I’m supposed to be each and every time. I just follow the path. It’s wonderful.”

That same spirit runs through all the volunteers, from coordinators to elves and porters who take wrapped gifts out to the clients’ cars. Ethan, a high school freshman, is in his third year as a porter.

“It’s really fun. I like doing it,” he said. “You’re giving hope to people who really need it and it’s helping them find their path to get back on track.”

Msgr. John Bluett, pastor of St. Stephen Parish, recalled how the store started out small some 15 years ago.

“We started buying gifts and distributing them to needy families,” he said. “Now we have 10 schools we work with.”

School guidance counselors and principals each select 10 needy families. In addition, the parish has a list of families they serve through their outreach program. Weeks prior to the store’s grand opening, parishioners bring gifts to the altar during Mass. Gifts are then brought to the gymnasium and volunteers set up. When they open for shopping, the gym is transformed into a department store, divided by sections and aisles.

Remaining gifts are purchased in bulk from monetary donations, and bicycles are donated by parishioners Al and Linda Franks. The Franks’ Christmas Bike Program provided 65 bikes to St. Stephen Parish this year and have donated 6,500 bikes over the past 18 years. The idea came to them after they shopped at Walmart many years ago. The woman in front of them was on welfare and did not have enough money to pay for her child’s bicycle. The Franks’ pitched in what was needed.

On the ride home, Al told Linda, “We can do something about this,” and the bike program started.
While parents are shopping, children have a chance to shop for their parents and have everything gift-wrapped. When the shopping spree is over, families may select from various gently used coats, sweaters and other items.

Msgr. Bluett said the parish’s inspiration for the program comes from Matthew 25:40 — “And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

“These are people who have great needs,” he said. “Our volunteers are happy to make them feel better.”

Volunteer Kathy Barrett concurred with the pastor’s statement. She spends most of Black Friday scouring for deals to stock the store.

“You can’t help but be inspired by the people who come through here,” she said. “You get such a wide variety of veterans and people who would never find themselves in a place like this. They’re so humbled and gracious. It’s the best of humanity that comes out.”