Northeast Times

Families thankful for this Christmas cause

As Thanks­giv­ing kicks off the hol­i­day sea­son, one Port Rich­mond fam­ily is cel­eb­rat­ing five years of their cause, which helps oth­er fam­il­ies in need dur­ing the hol­i­days.

Kass Wur­ten­berg, Sara­mia Suarez and Kelly Suarez in Wur­ten­berg’s home. Sara­mia star­ted Pro­ject Christ­mas An­gel five years ago, as a way to help loc­al fam­il­ies in Port Rich­mond. BRI­AN RADEMAEKERS / STAR PHOTO

It star­ted out as a slightly am­bi­tious com­munity ser­vice pro­ject, one that would help Sara­mia Suarez com­plete her con­firm­a­tion class at St. George School. Today, Suarez has long since been con­firmed, and yet her Pro­ject Christ­mas An­gel lives on in Port Rich­mond, five years since its in­cep­tion.

So far, nearly 100 fam­il­ies in the neigh­bor­hood have seen an out­pour­ing of hol­i­day spir­it, and they can all thank Suarez’s de­sire to out-do her fifth-grade peers about five years ago. 

“It seemed like, for the com­munity ser­vice part of con­firm­a­tion class, a lot of the kids were just do­ing the kind of stuff they prob­ably should have been do­ing around the house any way,” Suarez, now 15 and a fresh­man at Hal­la­han High School, re­calls with a laugh. “I just wanted to do something that would be more of a good thing for the whole neigh­bor­hood.”

Her mom, Kelly Suarez, and aunt, Kass Wur­ten­berg, helped come up with an idea that seemed simple enough: col­lect gifts and dona­tions from friends and fam­ily, and then give the goods to loc­al house­holds feel­ing the pinch around the hol­i­days.

“The first year, we were ac­tu­ally able to help six fam­il­ies,” said Wur­ten­berg.  “We got the names by put­ting a little ad in the church bul­let­in, we put some fli­ers around, and people would call us and say ‘Well, gee, I know a fam­ily,’ and they would ex­plain the cir­cum­stances.”

As it turned out, the char­it­able spir­it was an in­fec­tious one for this band of help­ers, and they were spurred to do more after they saw how real the need was among neigh­bors. 

“It was so suc­cess­ful and re­ward­ing to us that we de­cided to keep it go­ing every year,” said Wur­ten­berg last Fri­day. “It has really ex­ploded. Last year, we de­livered to 38 fam­il­ies.” 

Early on, Cheers Caf&ea­cute; on West­mo­re­land Street pitched in, selling 50-50 tick­ets to raise money dur­ing foot­ball games and open­ing the bar up for a hol­i­day party and fun­draiser where people who wanted to chip in could drop off gifts of their own. 

These days, or­gan­iz­a­tions as big as the Phil­lies are lend­ing sup­port to Pro­ject Christ­mas An­gel. 

Gathered in the liv­ing room of Wur­ten­berg’s home along Chath­am Street, the Suarezs and Wur­ten­berg were care­ful to stress that the fam­il­ies who re­ceive help from Pro­ject Christ­mas An­gel al­ways re­main an­onym­ous. The day after all the gifts and dona­tions have been col­lec­ted at Cheers Caf&ea­cute;, the fam­ily per­son­ally de­liv­ers the bundles to each home on the list. 

Be­sides toys, they also in­clude gift cards to pop­u­lar stores for older kids, and throw in cer­ti­fic­ates for loc­al su­per­mar­kets so fam­il­ies can make a Christ­mas meal.

Wur­ten­berg, her sis­ter, and her niece all de­scribe the ex­per­i­ence of help­ing out fam­il­ies in need as a bit­ter­sweet one. 

“We’re a blue-col­lar neigh­bor­hood … with the eco­nomy be­ing the way it has been for the last few years, a lot of these fam­il­ies for the first time star­ted to ex­per­i­ence fin­an­cial dif­fi­culty. But you still have to have Christ­mas for your kids,” said Wur­ten­berg. 

“It’s kind of heart­break­ing to know there are people liv­ing right near you that really are in dire straits. But it’s the most re­ward­ing activ­ity I’ve ever been in­volved in.”

Pro­ject Christ­mas An­gel has been such a hit that they are cap­ping the num­ber of fam­il­ies they plan to help this year at 35 just to keep the ef­fort man­age­able. 

They’ve also had to turn down people from sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods be­cause they want to keep the concept of neigh­bors help­ing neigh­bors at the core of the ef­fort.

“We do get calls from Kens­ing­ton, Brides­burg, Fishtown, and while we would like to help every­body, it’s im­possible. So our goal is to first help the people of Port Rich­mond. But if we do have enough, we have branched out,” Wur­ten­berg said. “If we could get people to start something like this in every neigh­bor­hood, my God, that would be won­der­ful.”

Both Sara­mia and her aunt re­called vis­it­ing one fam­ily that was in es­pe­cially dire need. 

“We vis­ited a fam­ily, a moth­er and daugh­ter, and it was the poorest house I ever went in­to. It was clean, but there were no rugs and the fur­niture was really battered. The little girl ac­tu­ally came in­to the room while we were there, and she was just sweet and po­lite. 

“The mom was just over­whelmed, and ba­sic­ally told us that if we hadn’t come, there would have been no Christ­mas for them,” said Wur­ten­berg. “We went out and got more stuff and more food coupons, be­cause we felt we had truly come across an ex­tremely poor fam­ily, and it was heart­break­ing. Heart­break­ing.” 

This year, the Pro­ject Christ­mas An­gel group will meet for the fi­nal gift-gath­er­ing event, which of­ten re­sembles a big hol­i­day party, at Cheers Caf&ea­cute; on Dec. 15, from 2 to 8 p.m. The event is open to the pub­lic.

Pro­ject Christ­mas An­gel in­vites res­id­ents to stop by Cheers Caf&ea­cute;, 2601 E West­mo­re­land St., on Sunday, Dec. 15, with a gift or dona­tion for loc­al fam­il­ies. Find out more about the non-profit ef­fort on Face­book.  ••

You can reach at brademaekers@bsmphilly.com.

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