The Christ Child Society of South Bend distributed new children’s clothing to a record number of families during the first week the clothing center opened for the 2023-24 season.
Some 177 families came to the society’s clothing center in Mishawaka on Miracle Lane in the Town & Country Shopping Centre on August 9 and 10, the week before schools opened. This is the 76th year the local chapter of the society has been helping to clothe children in need.
Qualifying families receive layettes for newborns, while children up to and including 14 years of age receive a new winter coat, hat, gloves or mittens, pants, a T-shirt (or a school uniform), a sweatshirt, athletic shoes, seven pairs of underwear and socks, a book, and dental supplies. Children may also obtain gently used clothing if their size is in stock.
Melissa Baltz, who is chapter Co-President along with Sue Seall, predicted that, at this rate, the organization likely will exceed its record number of children served, which was 4,500 last school year — 1,000 more than it had the year before.
With the number of clients growing, the Christ Child Society in 2020 was able to move its clothing center from the former St. Patrick’s School building to a larger former retail building. Here, the members have developed a system that directs clients through the building quickly and easily to pick up the clothing.
Today’s Catholic followed a mother of five as she obtained new clothing for her children. First, she received a number based on when she arrived in the line at the front doors. She secured eighth place by showing up two-and-a-half hours before the center opened at 4 p.m. on Thursday, August 10. Society members reported that some clients were in line at 4 a.m. for the 8:30 a.m. opening on Wednesday, August 9, the first day of the new season.
To be eligible for the free winter clothing, families must have an income at or below 130 percent of the poverty level and be referred by a school, church, or social services agency. (To qualify for a newborn layette, mothers must be at or below 150 percent poverty level.)
The client first met with an interviewer, who checked her referral and identification and then recorded information about her children’s sizes.
With the interview complete, her information went out electronically to the various stations: new clothing, shoes, coats, and used clothing.
After a short wait, the mother was given a red canvas wagon for her shopping as she proceeded to the various clothing stations. There, volunteers had already filled and bagged her order. The last stop was checkout, where the client was given a book and dental supplies for each child. Near the checkout was a boutique where clients may take donated household goods or used clothing in adult sizes.
Of course, this efficiency requires many hands, and Baltz said the system uses around 60 volunteers to keep the line of clients moving smoothly. Many of those volunteers come from the local society’s membership of about 375, but other people also volunteer because they find it so rewarding to help clothe disadvantaged children.
Longtime Christ Child member Susan Wendowski began knitting baby layettes 30 years ago during the summers when she wasn’t teaching. Now that she is retired, she can be what she calls a “Jack of all trades” at the clothing center.
As a public-school teacher, she said she witnessed the tragedy of children coming to school without adequate clothing, wearing shoes too small for them, and even without winter coats in freezing weather.
“I always think: These, too, are Christ’s children. … What’s the point of our faith if we aren’t doing something? Jesus did things: He preached, but He did things, and that’s what this is,” Wendowski said.
Another volunteer said she sees many “God moments” at the clothing center, and she noted it is quite appropriate that the center is on Miracle Lane.
Society member Judy Farrell, who works in the coat room, told Today’s Catholic how rewarding it is to see what the new clothing means to the families she sees. She is particularly moved to see the joy in the children who receive the clothing, recalling one 12-year-old who exclaimed, “This is the first new coat I’ve ever had!”
One key volunteer group is students, middle school through college, for they often help during evening hours when senior members may be reluctant to drive at night, or on Sundays when members may have family gatherings.
Many of those students continue to help even after graduation because they find the work so rewarding. Molly Killilea, a recent college graduate, said that she was motivated to volunteer by a friend who had enjoyed the experience, and by the fact that her grandmother, the late Diane Killilea, had been a Christ Child Society member.
Killilea said she likes to make connections with the families and see how excited the children get over their new clothes. “I remember when I was growing up getting a new pair of shoes for the school year, and I see that reflected in the kids here,” she said.
With a $550,000 annual clothing budget, the society’s Clothing Committee uses creative methods to purchase quality clothing as reasonably as possible. They buy clearance
items, use coupons, ask stores for overstock items, etc. Baltz said some local stores at times have even donated end-of-season items. Also, many volunteers knit and crochet at home and donate many hats, scarves, and mittens for older children, as well as baby items for the layettes.
The South Bend Chapter of Christ Child Society receives no government or United Way funding. It is funded entirely by donations, grants, and its annual fundraising events: “Let Love Shine” dinner auction, Annual Appeal Campaign, and Clothe a Child Paper Doll Drive.
For more information about joining or volunteering for the Christ Child Society of South Bend, email [email protected] or visit the website at
christchildsb.org. The website also has a list of the multiple social service agencies that provide referrals.
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