By Tim Puet
Members of the Christ Child Society of Columbus do more than pull out their checkbooks when called on to help children in need.
In the tradition of the founder of the society’s national organization, Mary Virginia Merrick, the group provides personal, hands-on service by making layettes for infants, volunteering at the child care facility at St. Stephen’s Community House, staffing the Crib Club at the Women’s Care Center on the city’s east side, providing meals for children at the Run the Race Club on the west side, and taking part in other activities which have the common purpose of benefiting at-risk children.
“I love working with kids,” said Beth Kistler, president of the organization for the past year. “We help children and mothers at every level, from layettes at birth to programs designed to help bring success at school. What’s especially important is that everything we do has an education and literacy component to it. I joined the society in 2011, and my life is much richer because of it.”
“I was invited to a get-acquainted meeting over coffee for prospective members of the society three years ago and was immediately impressed by the women belonging to it,” said Kathy Kelly, who will succeed Kistler as president in 2018. “I could see the significance of their projects and the impact they had. I wanted to be part of it and to do what Mary Virginia Merrick often said, ‘Find a need and fill it.’”
“The guiding principle of the society has always been personal service rendered for love of the Christ Child to the least of these, his little ones,” Merrick wrote in 1954. “In developing this purpose, the society has widened and deepened its activities to meet the exigencies of the time.”
The society’s story begins at this time of the year in 1884 with Merrick, a young boy, and a red wagon.
Merrick, who lived In Washington, D.C., was 18 years old at the time. She had been partially paralyzed after a childhood fall, and remained in a wheelchair all her life. Her family had enough wealth to be able to hire a woman as a laundress, with the woman’s son Paul taking on the role of doing errands for Mary Virginia.
One day, he told her that he wanted a red wagon for Christmas so he could carry home his mother’s wash, but he realized his family had little money. Mary Virginia knew her family could afford to purchase the wagon, but she wanted to do so anonymously. She told Paul, “Write a letter to the Christ Child, the giver of all good gifts.” In a few days, he returned to Mary Virginia’s side with a handful of letters written by his brothers and sisters.
Mary Virginia shared these letters with her sisters and friends, who fulfilled all the children’s Christmas requests. Their gifts bore tags that read “From the Christ Child.”
Merrick’s philanthropy did not end there. Three years later, in 1887, she learned of a family living in extreme poverty who were expecting a baby at Christmastime. She persuaded her sisters and friends to assemble a layette for the child, and it was delivered to the deeply grateful mother in time for the baby’s birth.
With these first gifts and the dedication to enhance the lives of needy children, Merrick formally organized the Christ Child Society in 1887. The red wagon remains its symbol, and the layette is its signature gift. Merrick was active in the society until her death in 1955. She has been declared a Servant of God. Her cause for beatification and canonization was opened in 2007.
The faith-based, all-volunteer society of women which she founded has nearly 6,000 members, with chapters in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Molly Fanning of Columbus is a member of its national board. Ohio is the state having the largest number of chapters, with eight – located in Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo, Geauga and Lake counties, and Columbus.
The society’s Columbus chapter received its charter in April 1983, nearly 100 years after the organization was founded. “The idea for a chapter started around 1981,” said Kay Gibbons, one of the chapter’s 28 founding members. “I had moved here from Akron, where I was a member. I had a conversation with Mary Ann Celebrezze and learned she belonged to the society in Cleveland before moving to Columbus when her husband, Frank, became an Ohio Supreme Court justice. The mother of Alice Heller, another founding member, was a member of the society in Chicago.
“A few more of us started talking about starting a chapter in Columbus, and eventually we had a meeting to organize it at the home of Helen McDaniel,” longtime diocesan Catholic Social Services director. “All of us wanted to help children,” Gibbons said. “We had the blessing of Bishop (Edward) Herrmann and help from Helen and the Dayton chapter of the society in getting things organized. At first, we met in each other’s homes.”
The chapter’s general membership meetings now take place once a month at various locations. It has about 120 members. In 2018, it is resuming a previous practice of forming a provisional class of members who take part in activities for a year before being admitted to full membership. Dues are $75 per year, $95 for sustaining (non-active) members, and $60 for members who no longer live in the area.
The chapter’s first service project involved assembly and distribution of the society’s signature layettes – a service which has continued uninterrupted for nearly 35 years. Members gather each month at Columbus St. Timothy Church to put together the layettes in assembly-line fashion and tie them in a blanket for delivery.
Kistler said 1,780 layettes were sent in 2016 to hospitals, women’s centers, health departments, and pregnancy support organizations in Franklin, Pickaway, Union, and Madison counties which are contacted each month by Christ Child volunteers. Contents of the layettes have changed over the years to reflect advancements in knowledge about infant care.
The layettes currently consist of a sleep sack, a receiving blanket, a towel, two “onesies” underwear shirts, disposable diapers, two sleepers, a book, and other items as available. The book is a recent addition to the package and is part of a renewed emphasis the national organization is placing on literacy through its “Challenging Poverty, One Child at a Time” program.
The chapter is particularly active at St. Stephen’s Community House. The child care center there was named in honor of the Christ Child Society because the organization was instrumental in the center’s startup in 1991. It has earned the five-star award, the highest available, from the state of Ohio’s Step Up to Quality program for its efforts in promoting learning and development programs that meet state standards while exceeding licensing, health, and safety regulations.
The center serves children from six weeks to kindergarten. Chapter members volunteer in capacities which include planning and executing a weekly story time and assisting with monthly literary enrichment, music, and art classes and holiday and seasonal events.
The chapter has established a library at St. Stephen’s for preschool, elementary, and high school students, has purchased equipment for its playground, and works with its literacy program. For teachers, the chapter provides staff meeting support, a teacher appreciation week, and a planning area.
Its Project Starfish program provides tuition assistance for the child care center to eight to 10 families who meet income eligibility and have mothers who are working or going to school.
The chapter’s Crib Club boutique is located in the Women’s Care Center at 935 E. Broad St. in Columbus. Since 2008, it has benefited low-income mothers and babies by providing support, valuable information concerning infant care, and items the mothers might otherwise be unable to afford, such as new cribs, pack-and-play sets, diapers, and clothing.
This is an incentive program that rewards participation in parenting classes, prenatal care, and other valuable educational programs. Through participation, coupons are earned and may be redeemed at the Crib Club store. Chapter volunteers are fully responsible for running the store. Members raise funds to purchase merchandise, price items, and stock shelves.
The chapter’s involvement with the Run the Race Club has grown substantially over the years. The club sponsors a variety of programs for children in the west side and Hilltop areas of Columbus. It was established by Rachel Muha of Columbus in honor of her son Brian, one of two Franciscan University of Steubenville students abducted from their off-campus room and murdered in 1999.
Each Tuesday and Thursday, the chapter provides and cooks hot meals for 60 students in the club’s after-school program, many of whom otherwise would not have anything for dinner. When the club moved its activities from a Columbus recreation center to a permanent home of its own, the chapter paid for tables, storage closets, and supplies for an art room. Its volunteers continue to assist in providing food for special events at the center and in obtaining items for its food pantry.
The chapter also provides tutoring for students at Columbus All Saints Academy and Columbus St. James the Less School, working one-on-one with students in kindergarten through third grade whom teachers have identified as needing extra time to master learning skills.
Each year, it awards need-based scholarships and grants to students who will attend diocesan Catholic high schools. For the 2017-18 school year, it awarded $39,250, with that amount including five new scholarships and a one-time grant. Since the inception of the scholarship program in 2000, it has awarded $841,850 to students.
Its principal fundraising event is the annual Red Wagon Fare luncheon, named in honor of Mary Virginia Merrick’s initial gift. It takes place on a weekday afternoon in October, and for the last several years has been at the Villa Milano banquet center in Columbus. The event includes a style show and a boutique featuring local vendors. This year, about 430 people attended the event and it raised about $43,000. Those attending were asked to bring a book with them and donate it as part of the chapter’s literacy efforts, and about 300 did so.
Other activities sponsored by the chapter include a day of reflection for members and friends in March, a baby shower in April to provide layette items, and a Founders Day event in May at which longtime members are honored, new members are inducted, and scholarship recipients are recognized.
The 2018 day of reflection will be at Columbus St. Andrew Church from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, March 21. The featured speaker will be Pam Heil, who was youth minister at Dublin St. Brigid of Kildare Church and campus minister at Columbus St. Francis DeSales High School for more than a decade. She is a nationally known speaker on listening to and learning from young people and helping them develop healthy relationships and strong values. Mass and lunch also will be part of the program.
The chapter’s annual Angel Fund drive is under way. Donations may be sent to Christ Child Society of Columbus, Post Office Box 340091, Columbus OH 43234-0091. Its email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information or if you are interested in becoming a member, go to www.christchildsociety.org. To learn more about the chapter’s national organization, go to www.nationalchristchildsociety.org
By Tim Puet