And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
He said to them in reply, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none…”Luke 3:10-11
St. Ambrose coat collection began seven years ago
Just as Jesus told His followers to do, St. Ambrose school students and parishioners in Annandale share their coats with people who need them.
During a late autumn drive school families and parishioners contributed more than 500 articles of winter wear, mostly coats, but also hats, gloves, scarves and snow suits.
“For such a small school community, the response has been amazing,” said school volunteer and parishioner Meredith Hinkle, who began the drive seven years ago. The first year the coats went to families served by Catholic Charities Hogar Immigrant Services. “I think we get in this area and we can lose sight of the fact that there are so many people who are in need. But this community never disappoints. And the students are always so willing to help in any way.”
St. Ambrose’s collective generosity meant hundreds of people in the Diocese of Arlington who needed coats are now warm. Just before Christmas, their contributions were joined with coats from parishioners at Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church in Sterling, and essential household supplies donated by students at St. Agnes Catholic School in Arlington. Catholic Charities staff, volunteers and sixth, seventh and eighth graders from St. Timothy Catholic School distributed the donations to the rural poor of the diocese.
“It is beautiful to see that what began with a few parishioners who saw people in need has now turned into an annual project that brings so many parish groups and families together,” said St. Ambrose pastor Fr. Andrew Fisher. “These winter coats also come with our prayers, as we keep those who receive these coats in our prayers throughout the year at St. Ambrose parish.”
When she learned about the St. Ambrose coat drive, Mary Gaziano, who, along with her husband Joe, is also a Catholic Charities volunteer, stepped up to assist.
“She’s been a Godsend,” Hinkle said. “She shared the vision that all donations given be something that you or I would like to receive; to treat our neighbors in need respectfully.”
Hinkle and Gaziano take turns each week hauling the winter clothing home for inspection, washing, and, if necessary, a quick trip to a local dry cleaner. Some parishioners donate new coats and winter wear, as well.
“It was Meredith’s vision and energy that got this whole thing started,” Gaziano said. Meredith and her husband Jim are parents to Fr. James C. Hinkle, formerly parochial vicar at St. Theresa, Ashburn, and current Navy chaplain.
St. Ambrose coats have gone far and wide: St. Theresa’s Divine Mercy Outreach; area flood victims served by St. James the Greater Catholic Church in Charles Town, WVA; Catholic Charities Christ House in Old Town Alexandria.
This year school families and parishioners donated the largest amount ever. More than 500 pieces of winter wear were collected and the bulk of them were distributed through our Mercy Van, also known as the Mobile Response Center. Items were also given to the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute.
Once the coats were collected, Tony Cannava, Mercy Van coordinator, joined St. Ambrose volunteers to load this year’s haul into a Catholic Charities van to transport back to its Manassas warehouse. Volunteers included students from teacher Patty Cummins’ Spanish class, St. Ambrose Pastor Fr. Andrew Fisher and parochial vicar Fr. Joseph Bergida, seminarian Joe Townsend, and Laura Mead, a Dame from the Knights of Malta, among others.
Ten days later, staff and volunteers packed the coats and winter accessories into the Mercy Van, along with the donations of household products.
The Mobile Response Center, a.k.a. The Mercy Van
Since 2018, the Mercy Van has been making monthly trips to the parking lot of the St. John Bosco Catholic Outreach Center, Woodstock, in the Shenandoah Valley, to distribute household, seasonal and other essential items to families in need. Last summer, the van began monthly distributions from the St. Elizabeth of Hungary parking lot in Colonial Beach in the Northern Neck. Thanks to a generous $15,000 grant from the Order of Malta Catholic Charities also is exploring additional Mercy Van sites within the Diocese of Arlington.
The week before Christmas the Mercy Van drove to Woodstock where despite the wind and cold, St. Timothy students helped distribute coats and items to more than 100 families. The next day, Cannava headed southeast to the Northern Neck where another 30 families received coats and household items at St. Elizabeth of Hungary.
“They organized the massive amount of donations to best display them, searched for sizes requested by clients, translated from Spanish to English when necessary and seemed to revel in wishing everyone they met a “Merry Christmas” with a smile on their face,” Cannava said of the students. “Even though they were out in the cold for hours and half-frozen themselves it was heart-warming.”