Bellarmine students make Christmas bright for families in need

VIDEO: Bellarmine's Christmas 'Adopt a Family' delivers

Follow students from Jeanne Hanigan's home room as they deliver gifts to a Tacoma family.
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Follow students from Jeanne Hanigan's home room as they deliver gifts to a Tacoma family.

Thanks to the students at Bellarmine Preparatory School, 52 Tacoma-area families will have a merry Christmas.

The families are part of the Catholic school’s annual Adopt-A-Family tradition, which turned 25 this year.

Bellarmine teacher Charlie Rousseau has been guiding his students through Adopt-a-Family since the program began in 1991.

“Many of our students, as well as families we have served, have been touched and transformed by this experience,” he said.

Bellarmine is all about service.

Senior Olivia Culet

Here’s how it works: Each Bellarmine homeroom, also known as community period, works together to fulfill the wishes of a family in the South Sound. Families who are referred by social workers from area schools, Catholic Community Services and other sources.

Each classroom of between 20 and 25 students gets the name and wish list for their family right before Thanksgiving. Students then go to work shopping for gifts and food and wrap presents in preparation for the big delivery day that takes place right before Christmas break.

“Every year, I worry what will happen if they don’t come through,” teacher Jeanne Hanigan said. “But they always do.”

“It’s a chance for us to involve students in the community,” said teacher Julie Hiles, who coordinates the program. She said teachers try to stress that students aren’t just giving gifts, but that they’re celebrating Christmas together with the families they assist.

Hiles said Adopt-a-Family is also a community-building experience for Bellarmine’s nearly 1,000 students.

Senior Terese Schomogyi agrees.

“The whole school gets into it,” she said.

“We get a chance to make other kids smile,” said junior Caitlyn Alejo

On delivery day this month, Bellarmine was humming with activity. Students balanced shopping bags full of food and boxes of disposable diapers as they hurried through the hallways. Wrapped toys and clothes were stacked along the walls of classrooms, along with bags and boxes of groceries.

Christmas cookies helped fuel the students’ holiday mood. So did Jack Martin, a junior who dressed as Santa.

“It’s super fun to be able to bring things to people in their homes,” he said. “The parents are just as excited as the kids.”

Before Hanigan’s students began their delivery, she gathered them in a circle for prayer. Outside, students filled the trunks of cars with gifts, and a small traffic jam formed as they began exiting the school grounds on the way to their adopted families. Other students piled gifts and food into several Bellarmine mini-buses.

Darrell Massey, a sophomore, said he likes helping families who aren’t as fortunate as many of his classmates.

“It’s nice to be able to give to people,” he said.

The whole school gets into it.

Senior Terese Schomogyi

Junior Alexis Wilhelm said she and most of her classmates are well-provided for. So it’s important for them to recognize that not every family has that luxury.

“I like it because it takes us out of our element,” she said.

Art teacher Ben Meeker and student Emmet Ceccanti used wood left over from the school musical production to build a storage shed for their family, a couple and their two school-age children who live in an old RV in Parkland.

Meeker, who met the family when he took them to Thanksgiving dinner, described their living conditions as “extreme.”

“We usually give presents and food,” he said. “But these people had nothing.”

So his class bought the family a griddle and other cooking implements, as well as food. Students decorated the RV with a wreath.

Senior Olivia Culet said Adopt-a-Family is a good way to help students who haven’t previously participated in community service to get involved.

“Bellarmine is all about service,” she said.

Without the help from Bellarmine, families like those of Maura Villagran and Francisco Garcia might not be opening many presents this Christmas.

Villagran said she tries to teach her five children that it’s enough to simply be together as a family at Christmas. The older ones understand, she said, but it’s harder for the two younger children, ages 3 and 1.

The older children were at school, and the two little ones were sleeping ,when Hanigan’s students arrived with gifts for everyone. After piling the gifts in a corner of the apartment, students posed for a photo with Villagran. She gave them a Christmas card expressing her family’s thanks.

“I’m happy to see my children will be happy,” she said.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

See video of Bellarmine students talking about the Adopt-A-Family program.