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ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin|Published December 14, 2023

ATLANTA—A steady stream of cars pulls into a parking lot near St. Anthony of Padua Church in the West End. Volunteers greet each driver and yell numbers to runners who bring boxes, bags and bicycles from well-organized stations strewn throughout the lot.  

They may be loading toys and gifts into Toyotas, Hondas and Fords instead of a sleigh, but there is no question that the spirit of giving is alive on this wet Saturday morning as shouts of “Merry Christmas” can be heard above the sounds of the heavy rain.  

Tom Bickes leads the group in loading the cars. He’s been doing this for more than 35 years since he and his wife, May May, along with St. Anthony parishioner Margaret Wilkerson, began the Christmas Connections ministry. While its beginnings were humble—Wilkerson remembers serving only two families the first year—it has grown tremendously in the more than three decades it has been in existence. 

Longtime volunteer Tom Bickes, right, oversees logistics of gift distribution for the Christmas Connections program Dec. 9. Bickes and his wife, May May, along with St. Anthony of Padua parishioner Margaret Wilkerson, began the Christmas Connections ministry some 35 years ago. Photo by Jackie Holcombe

Christmas Connections, which has been an official part of Catholic Charities Atlanta (CCA) for more than 25 years, is a gift-giving program for CCA clients and partner communities and churches. Parishes participate by purchasing gifts for children based on their wish lists, as well as providing some household items for the parents.  

The entire process starts long before the gift-distribution day for CCA staff. 

“For me and my team…the planning takes nine months. From early discussions with the sponsors about any changes they want to see, to training staff and volunteers, enrollment over the summer—where we meet in person with the families, to data entry, to producing the lists for the sponsors in October,” said Christie Crane, assistant director, volunteer and partner resources. “What is unique is that the gifts on the wish lists are specific gifts requested by the family. We talk with each family to obtain their items. They are not the generic ‘doll for a 6-year-old-girl.’ They are the items the family would truly like to have, within reason. Also, each child receives three gifts, and each parent can ask for one gift. They also receive one family gift, a choice of a rice cooker, sheets or pots and pans.” 

This year parishioners from the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta; St. Joseph Church, Marietta; St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell; St. Jude the Apostle Church, Sandy Springs; and St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta, provided gifts for 939 families. Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta also contributes to the program financially.  

Santa Claus visits with youngsters Dec. 9 at the Northlake office of Catholic Charities Atlanta in Tucker as part of Christmas Connections. Photo Courtesy of Catholic Charities Atlanta

The joy of giving and volunteering 

In addition to the gift distribution at St. Anthony, there were five other sites throughout the area where families picked up gifts on Saturday, Dec. 9. Besides the many parishioners who give, the endeavor takes more than 160 volunteers each year. 

Kinley Kalb, 15, a sophomore at St. Pius X High School, said this was her third year serving at a distribution site. 

“Even though it’s raining, it’s just such a good environment,” she said. “It’s always fun to see everyone’s faces when you bring their gifts. It’s a feel-good day.” 

Margaret Wilkerson, or “Mama Margaret” as she is affectionately known, sat in her car before the distribution checking all her lists twice. She was a receptionist for Catholic Charities when she first began receiving calls about Christmas gifts.  

“People would call and say ‘do y’all do anything for Christmas?’” she remembers. They started out with a small amount of money helped families with food and $10 gifts. But that’s grown as more people have gotten involved. Last year alone, families received $714,897 worth of gifts. 

“I just love seeing them come and get their gifts,” she said. “It’s a joy to be able to give.” 

For Bickes, this is one of his favorite days of the year. 

“Every time I do this, I get chills,” he said. “The parishes are just so generous. The biggest charge I get is seeing so many people who are willing to share their blessings. And I get to be here to see the joy it gives these families.” 

He said one of the best aspects of the program is that the families come to pick up the gifts that are specifically chosen for their children. 

“Having them come here to pick up the gifts, rather than having someone parading through their house to bring them really allows them to maintain the dignity they deserve,” said Bickes. 

Another area of distribution is at St. Bernadette Church in Cedartown, where Bickes has also led the efforts. Though the event is a lot of work, Bickes said it’s worth it when he thinks of the recipients. 

“I always envision these kids on Christmas morning and how excited they must be,” he said. “One year at St. Bernadette, we gave out 250 bikes. And I couldn’t help but think what the streets of Cedartown must have looked like on Christmas day—just filled with these kids riding their new bikes.”