Hope Sniadecki is studying to be a nurse, through grants and other student assistance. She works as a bartender and waitress to help pay rent and other living expenses.
So when the weather turned cold this fall, she wondered how she was going to afford winter coats for her two children, ages 1 and 2.
Then, someone told her about the Christ Child Clothing Center.
“I didn’t even know about this until last week,’’ says Hope, 22, recently, as she sat on a bench in the hallway at the center. “This is going to help a lot.’’
Housed in a building that over the years has been, by turn, a parochial school building and an older-adult education facility, the center serves up to 350 children every Wednesday.
Each former classroom is now loaded with a specific kind of clothing. There’s a shoe room, a coat room, a baby room, and so on to give each child, 12 and under, what they need. Even the boys locker room has been converted—to a storage area.
Many families come asking for the entire gamut of clothing, leaving with underwear, socks, a long-sleeved shirt or sweatshirt, a t-shirt, a pair of dress pants, pair of jeans and sneakers as well as a winter coat, hat and mittens for each child.
Families with small babies receive an entire layette with onesies, baby bottles, a gown, a bath towel, a blanket, handmade caps and jackets and a pram for cold weather.
“Most people are very thankful, and really surprised that everything is new,’’ says Beth Barrett, president of the society. “We do have some used clothing, but volunteers go through it first. We don’t give away junk.’’
The new clothing comes from bargain sales and donations. Stores let society members go over the limit on buying because they know it’s for a good cause.
“Payless (Shoe Source) has been unbelievably generous,“ says Barrett. “They let us have the buy-one-get-one-free in mass quantities.’’
The center used to be housed in a former church, and those mass quantities of clothing were cramped into every nook and cranny.
But a year ago, the society moved into the spacious school off Western Avenue. They even have a waiting room where clients can sit comfortably and watch parenting videos, or read to their children, until their number is called.
“We also have a free nutrition lecture every Wednesday showing mothers how they can shop for and buy low-cost, nutritious food. For years, women just came and got the clothes and left. But we figure we have a captive audience here while they’re waiting, why not do something with that?” adds Barrett.
A special “intake room” has computers and direct connections with printers in the clothing rooms so volunteers don’t have to act as runners any more with the printed clothing requests.
In the intake room, clients are screened to make sure their family income is low enough (150 percent of the poverty level). Almost all families have been referred by another social-service agency, a school or church. Each family is allowed one society visit a year.
What really makes this a caring place, though, are the 500 volunteers, with 60 of them working any Wednesday from 8:30 am to about 1 pm August through December. They cheerfully donate their time, and it’s obvious they love to give clothing away.
“When you put a brand new coat on a child, it makes them so happy,’’ says Cindy Krupp, a Mishawaka resident who’s been volunteering for seven years. “It gives me complete self-satisfaction and I feel totally appreciated.”
The volunteer force is made up of women of all ages: older retired women, young and middle-aged stay-at-home Moms as well as professional working women. Most are Catholic, but there is no requirement for any religious affiliation.
The society is nondenominational, although there are Catholic aspects including an annual Mass, the Christ Child prayer that begins their meetings, and a Day of Recollection during Lent. (No religious affiliation is required of the families they serve.) Volunteers—also called members because they join for $40 a year ($35 for seniors)—put in anywhere from 4 hours a week to 20 hours a week, depending on the project they’re involved with.
In addition to volunteering at the clothing center August through January, members plan and carry out fundraisers to help pay for all those new clothes and shoes. Mail soliciting, writing thank-you letters, and hitting the streets for underwriters and donors comes with the fundraising. Volunteers also staff the annual Holiday Luncheon, which drew 450 guests last year.
Members also collect used clothing from school and church clothing drives, and then sort, clean and label it. They also have special programs at Christmastime, including buying gifts for about 45 families, including gift certificates for food.
And as if that all weren’t enough, the society also puts together “My Stuff” bookbags for children who are taken out of their homes on an emergency basis. The bags include personal items, basic school supplies, a book and a stuffed animal to provide something of their own they can take with them.
Members also do the office work—managing the database, serving as treasurer, preparing the monthly newsletter, or serve on committees.
“We are pretty informal, so people can just show up,” says Barrett. There are so many different opportunities that people usually find a niche that is perfect for their skills or offers the kind of volunteer experience they’re looking for, she adds.
And, the local society has had plenty of time to develop its opportunities.
It was founded in 1947 by Mrs. Jerome J. Crowley, who asked 15 of her friends to be on a board of directors. Their first project was to provide clothing for needy babies, and their first layette was given to a baby born in the early morning hours of Christmas morning.
Soon, they started providing clothing for older children and, as membership grew, so did their needs for space. The society’s first home was on East Jefferson Boulevard. Several interim spaces followed and then, in 1973, the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend provided the vacant Sacred Heart Church on Thomas Street. That church was the society’s home until last year.
The local society is affiliated with the National Christ Child Society, and is one of 41 chapters.
But the local clothing center is the very heart of the South Bend chapter, and it is very well organized.
Each Wednesday, each family is given a number when they arrive. Volunteers make sure all the numbers are processed by the end of the giveaway day, which is around 1 pm. They always get through all the numbers, and no one is left behind.
That is wonderful assurance for children who need new clothing to “fit in’’ at school, since blending in at school is important so they can focus their attention on learning.
“It’s fun to watch the kids trying on things, like shoes, even dancing in them,’’ says Barrett. “One boy, on a hot day just this past August, got a new coat, hat and gloves and he wouldn’t take them off. Even in the parking lot, he was wearing them!”
For more information on Christ Child Society
call (574) 288–6028 or visit christchildsb.org.