Baskets for needy spread Christmas cheer

Deborah Prescott | Daily Press Rose Winker, a volunteer for the St. Vincent de Paul Christmas basket program, prepares a table of hats, mittens and scarves before volunteer “shoppers” come by, Tuesday. Volunteers, like Winker, have been involved with the program for many years and are ready to hand it over to others to run

ESCANABA — The Ruth Butler building at the U.P. State Fairgrounds in Escanaba was a busy place this week. Volunteers gathered there collecting food, clothing and toys to assemble the annual St. Vincent de Paul Christmas baskets for needy families in the area.

This year, 280 families picked up their baskets from the Ruth Butler building Friday. Families who have previously registered are asked to bring the blue “postcard” they received in the mail to get their Christmas basket.

Each basket has food items, clothing, outerwear, and gifts. The food items can include (but are not limited to) potatoes, canned vegetables, applesauce, ham, bread, peanut butter/jelly, cake/frosting, and cereal.

“We couldn’t do this (Christmas baskets) without the volunteers and donations,” said Babs Cavadeas, the newly appointed president of the Escanaba St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“Elmer’s County Market, Jilbert Dairy and Verso are donating food items, and the Toys for Tots campaign delivered toys on Tuesday, it all helps.”

Deborah Prescott | Daily Press Volunteer “shoppers” Penny West and Mary Winker sort through a table of boys clothing to find the size needed to assemble a Christmas basket Tuesday at the Ruth Butler building on the U.P. State Fairgrounds. Some volunteers have been involved with St. Vincent de Paul’s Christmas basket program 50 years or more, while others, like West, are volunteering for the first time.

A lot of organization goes into a week of assembling and distributing Christmas baskets each year. Julie Bishop has taken the reigns from previous organizer, Betty Lou Tourangeau, who ran the program since 1993.

“I have been involved with it (Christmas baskets) for 60 years,” said Tourangeau.

Tourangeau said the program began with one family in need.

“We started at St. Thomas, and then it just kept growing,” said Tourangeau. “Two years ago, we had 413 families sign up, last year was 368. Now this year there are 280 families that have signed up. We also have 20 adopted families.”

“This is a very giving community,” said Bishop. “To some volunteers, the Christmas baskets are a ministry to other people.”

Tourangeau enjoys seeing kids volunteer. Last year, Holy Name Catholic School students helped to organize items on tables, and Escanaba High School students will carry Christmas baskets to the vehicles.

“Getting kids to start volunteering when they’re young is a good way to get them involved when they’re older. One day they will take over the operation,” said Tourangeau. “Every year we have a good load of volunteers… most of them have come back every year to help.”

“Doing these baskets makes my Christmas,” Tourangeau said. “I enjoy it, and even though I am stepping away from organizing the baskets, I will never be far away from it. It’s (St. Vincent de Paul) the best organization. We all need to think of others — help us, help others.”

Items that remain after the baskets are picked up will be delivered back to the St. Vincent de Paul buildings.

“Any toys that we have left we will donate to other organizations that are providing toys to families with children in need,” said Bishop.

For 27 years, Rose Winker has volunteered. This year, she brought family and friends to help throughout the week.

“I enjoy doing this to pass time in the winter,” said Winker. “Thursday I’ll help check the boxes, and Friday I’ll be directing traffic.”

Winker said she plans on retiring from the program after this year.

“I always told Betty I would retire when she does,” said Winker. “This is the year.”

The volunteers team up in pairs, and take a cart and tag before “shopping” along the tables of donated items. Each tag has an assigned number on one side, and on the other side, specific sizes for clothing, and food and toy requests. Age specific toys were placed in each basket according to the number of children and ages on the tag. The families will receive mittens, hats, scarves and socks, in addition to requested articles.

For 10 years, Maxine Trombley has volunteered to make Christmas baskets, and enjoys it each and every year.

“I get excited for it each year,” said Trombley. “If you don’t volunteer now, when are you ever going to volunteer?”

Volunteers range in age and experience. Penny West is a volunteer, creating baskets for the first time.

“It feels good to help,” said West as she was “shopping” with co-volunteer, Mary Winker.

“I am very glad to do this, and it’s super fun. I feel like Santa,” said Winker. “I have volunteered off and on for seven or eight years now.”

According to Cavadeas, any St. Vincent store that does not make a profit closes.

“All of the money that goes out from the store, goes to people in need in the area,” Cavadeas said. “We receive no funding from the government, and run on donations and proceeds that come from the store.”

“I encourage everyone to buy from St. Vincent de Paul. The money goes right back into the community to help those in need,” said Bishop.