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 Café 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 Café, 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 Café 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 Café, 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. ••