Keeping Christmas: Gabriel Richard students refill food pantry, adopt family in need

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Gabriel Richard High School students Natalie Loewengruber (left), 17, of Southgate; Chelsea Garrison, 18, of Southgate; and Cari Deskovitz, 17, of Woodhaven wrap presents for a family with a single mother and three teens, one with cancer, whom the high school students adopted for the holidays.

Times-Herald Newspapers

RIVERVIEW – A community food bank and a struggling single mom with three teens – one battling cancer – had happier holidays because of the generosity of Riverview Gabriel Richard Catholic High School students.

The campus ministry challenged the 300-member student body to collect 1,500 cans of food for the Downriver Community Food Pantry, 140 Superior Blvd. in Wyandotte, and $900 for the family of a 15-year-old battling Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that affects children, said Cheryl Knapp, campus ministry and theology department chairwoman.

The student body rose to the challenge and in three days, Dec. 4 to 6, students collected 1,794 non-perishable food items and $1,840 for the struggling family.

Knapp said school officials received a call from the St. Vincent Pallotti Parish — formed by the merger of St. Joseph Catholic Church, 334 Elm St., St. Patrick Catholic Church, 135 Superior Blvd., and the now-closed St. Elizabeth Catholic Church — when Thanksgiving emptied the community food pantry they support.

“They were in a panic because they actually could not open their doors,” Knapp said. “They nearly ran out of food the day before Thanksgiving, and then could not open their doors the following Wednesday.”

At the same time, a Gabriel Richard family told the school’s campus ministry about the family of a local teen with cancer who lost their home last fall following the diagnosis.

“Normally we go through Volunteers of America,” Knapp said. “It was kind of nice this year that the children of the family (who) know of the situation (were) able to share stories with our student body. I think it made it a little more meaningful for them.”

Volunteers of America is a non-profit organization which, through human service programs, including housing and health care, help vulnerable populations rebuild their lives and reach their potential.

Knapp said their fundraiser allocated $500 to get clothing for the three teens, as well as a box of non-perishable food items to provide start-up supplies for a holiday meal. She said they spent the remaining $1,340 mostly on grocery store gift cards, with some gasoline and fast food gift cards.

“All three are teenagers, and none of them asked for any kind of gadgets,” Knapp said. “They just wanted clothes and shoes.”

Cari Deskovitz, 17, a senior from Woodhaven, said it was tough knowing that the teens from the family they were helping were close to her in age, and it made her realize how lucky she was to have what she does have.

“We have so much, and they really didn’t have much,” Deskovitz said. “They have big issues that they have to overcome, and I was glad to help them.”

She said the stories about the family the school adopted really helped personalize the need as well.

“I think when kids our age hear that story it really does strike them that we need to do our best to help them,” Deskovitz said. “I think it really did motivate us to make our goal.”

Chelsea Garrison, 18, a senior from Southgate, wishes she could see the family’s faces when they open up their gifts.

“I am sure that they are going to be thrilled that they have clothes and stuff that they need,” Garrison said. “The family is struggling and going through a lot, so I think that is going to make their day, and make their Christmas a lot better.”

She said the basic nature of the family’s needs and wants reminded the students to be grateful for what they had.

“When I heard that the little boy was battling cancer, and that the family was struggling to get to the hospital and have gas, or have a home, or have food, it hit home,” Garrison said. “Every Christmas I have a meal, and I have presents I can open and they don’t. It made me feel like I needed to do more.”

Many students already have done more: two weeks earlier Knapp said students helped raise $500 through a Christmas card sale – with 100 cards sold for $5 each – to help the Senior Alliance to provide 100 meals to shut-ins on Christmas Day, one of four days during the year when Meals on Wheels does not operate.

The Senior Alliance – Area Agency on Aging is a non-profit agency dedicated to preserving and enhancing the independence of older people and individuals with disabilities in southern and western Wayne County.

Dean of Students Denise Ochmanek said she is especially proud of the students’ response and generosity.

“When they are asked to do things like this they come through all the time and go over and above everything we ask them to do,” Ochmanek said. “They were called to do this in an emergency situation and they just pulled through.”

Garrett Burton, 18, a senior from Brownstown Township, said in addition to helping with the food drive, he served as a Salvation Army bell ringer and donated to the school’s holiday blood drive.

“We really try to get into the spirit because a lot of the time Christmas is all about consumerism sometimes,” Burton said. “We try to move away from that and back to the roots of giving and trying to keep in focus what everything is about.”

James Lyons, 17, a senior from Wyandotte who helped load up the collected cans for the pantry, said while he has bought and delivered presents to families Gabriel Richard has adopted in past years, helping a family this year with teens close to his age made him realize how lucky he is to have what he does.

“I want to use my gifts and my talents and anything else I have to help the others who obviously don’t have that,” Lyons said.

As a volunteer with campus ministry, Natalie Loewengruber, 17, a junior from Southgate, counted and boxed food drive donations, and wrapped gifts for the students’ adopted family, which she said was a humbling experience compared to her own Christmas list.

“It really made me realize that sometimes you do get caught up in the materialism instead of focusing on the small things that can mean so much to somebody else,” Loewengruber said. “It kind of taught me to be grateful for what I have.”

“Personally, I feel blessed that I work here,” Knapp said. “It’s a joy with these students. It is not like, ‘Ugh! Got to go to work.’ Their generosity and energy is unreal and I hope that long after they graduate from Richard they are still reaching out and helping others.”