By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

At a time of year far removed from the ringing of Christmas bells and “angels” showing up with much needed gifts and necessities and holiday cheer, many struggling to make ends meet look at the waves of summer heat and think, “I can sure use an angel now.” 

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Angel ornaments adorned the St. Thomas More Summer Angel Tree.  Photos provided by Crystal Hebert  

 

With a bright, festively decorated tree topped with a smiling sun wearing sunglasses, St. Thomas More Church in Baton Rouge, through its Summer Angel Tree Project, showed angels are flying now.  

In recent years, St. Thomas More added the Summer Angel Tree in addition to its Christmas Angel Tree as an ongoing effort to support those in need.  

“The difference between our Summer and Christmas Angel trees is that our Summer Angel Tree focuses mainly on organizations (that assist the needy) and Christmas focuses on family and individual needs,” said Crystal Hebert, co-coordinator of the Summer Angel Tree Project.  

This summer’s recipients were Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, St. Thomas More School in Baton Rouge, Broadmoor Elementary School in Baton Rouge, Maison Des Ami of Louisiana and the Baton Rouge General and Woman’s Hospital NICU units. 

The organizations gave St. Thomas More a list of needed supplies, which were then listed on angel ornaments.  

Especially since the flood of 2016, there are people who still struggle to meet their basic needs, according to Lisa Johnson, Summer Angel Tree co-coordinator. Add to that those who have lost their homes in a house fire, those who have lost the income of the primary breadwinner through death or illness, single-parent households and the stress of buying school supplies and uniforms while paying bills and there are a broad range of needs.  

Jean Kay Brown, who serves with her husband, Charlie, on one of five teams on the STM’s Council of SVDP, said they received gift cards through the Summer Angel Tree.  

“We try to help as much as we can to help fill a void,” said Brown, adding that the STM SVDP council receives 20-25 requests per week for financial assistance. 

She said many families struggle this time of year because of the added expense of buying school supplies and uniforms. Even the cost of gas can present an additional financial burden for those with tight finances, she said.  

With each card distributed STM lets the recipients know they care about them, according to Brown.  

“We’ll say a prayer for their particular needs, and we always extend an invitation that they are welcome if they are looking for a church home,” said Brown.  

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Families picked angels from the Summer Angel Tree.  

 

STM averages about 450 angels on the tree per summer and parishioners respond generously, said Hebert and Johnson. Some are drawn to select angels requesting certain items.  

Johnson noted an elderly couple, whose grown children are adopted, pick angels each year to help a baby boy and girl.  

“They told me their adoption story and how they like to do that for summer and Christmas,” Johnson said.  

Some contribute their talents to the Angel Tree Project. One woman told Johnson, “I used to make receiving blankets – I think I want to get back into it.”  

Other parishioners were moved to participate in the Summer Angel Tree Project to give back to STM.  

Natalia Ortiz said when her husband, Fernando, became ill with cancer about two years ago, STM supported her. She had always wanted to do something to help people in need but never joined a ministry.  

“When my husband got cancer, the whole (STM) community surrounded us and embraced us while my husband was sick and receiving treatment,” said Ortiz. “They helped give Fernando the will to survive. They helped us all the way … when I think about them I want to cry.” 

She said “out of thanks for her husband being here on earth,” she volunteered for the Angel Tree Project and saw the suffering others were going through.  

“I could see Jesus in the people they helped,” said Ortiz.  

She said her encounters with the less fortunate taught her important life lessons.  

“God loves you even though you are going through a tough time,” said Ortiz. “I don’t think cancer was a tragedy; it was a blessing because of all the graces we’ve received. We are from Colombia, so we don’t have (biological) family here. They (STM) have become our family – by embracing each other we are getting closer to God.”