This past Sunday, the Youth Group from St. Albert the Great once again hosted a Christmas party at the site of the Mountain Arts Project in Jellico, TN.
Jellico straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky border. It is Appalachian, heart and soul, and the decimation of the two main industries - coal and timber - has brought poverty to the area. People are hurting. Kids are hurting.
Catholic Charities of East Tennessee runs the Mountain Arts Project at the Crazy Quilt Friendship Center. The center serves as a thrift store, a soup kitchen, and an overall source of aid and assistance for the community. Its manager, Ed, is a sweetheart.
Each Christmas, the good people of St. Albert the Great parish gather donations and make up gift baskets and food boxes for distribution at the center. But it is not enough to just hand them out, not when it is Christmas. So the delivery is done via a Christmas party, run by our Youth Group.
Santa is there! There are snacks and soft drinks. Face painting is going on and this year there was also nail decorating. And I took a corner of the center, made a small studio as best I could, set up a light stand, and shot some family portraits.
I will not show you the families, out of respect for their privacy. But in setting up and adjusting my camera settings, I asked some of our Youth Group to sit in and pose as a group, so I could judge how I would shoot these pictures. There they are above - kids living their Catholic faith. Amen, and amen.
Earlier today I was editing the family portraits and I was doing so, I started to tear up. These families, these pictures will mean a lot for them. One mother-daughter team posed and I heard the little girl say to the much older woman, "Come on, Mom, let's get our nails done." A woman standing nearby turned to me and said, "You know, that's not her mama. That's her grandmaw. But her mama run off and so her grandmaw formally adopted her." Another woman was excited: "I have no picture of me and my husband with all of our grandkids!" Judging the wide variety of ages among the grandchildren, she had been waiting for quite some time for this opportunity.
At one point I grabbed a cup of soda and looked around. Our kids were being good hosts, people were happy, and for me, I felt for a short time, all was well in the world and it was ready for Christmas. I thought about unhappy people I knew - if I could say something to them, it would be, you idiots, stop thinking you and your perceived problems are the center of the universe, there are people with much, much less than what you have and if they can find a way to cope, you have nothing to complain about.
There are kids who will not have a parent home at Christmas because they are incarcerated. Or they are simply "gone." Or the parents are there but that gift basket that they receive is the only thing they will get for Christmas. And the food box is the only "special" meal they will have. Our teens from St. Albert the Great realized that and made sure the children had a good time.
You want an answer to how do we keep another Sandy Hook from happening? We give our youth the opportunity to do service and realize its worth to others. No, there will still be violence, but there will be less when a child learns that no one is exempt from service to humanity as a human.
Yeah, the kids are alright, as The Who sang.