Christmas Mission Magic

What does it mean to live your faith through serving others?

The volunteers and staff of Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity witnessed “faith in action” this Christmas season when students from Donovan Catholic served lunch on December 16th to more than 50 dedicated people that share their time, talents and heart to provide decent housing for their neighbors in need. As Christmas music hummed in the background, students scurried around serving a delicious Italian meal donated from Carlo Boemio, a teacher and owner of Attilio’s Pizza and Three B’s Restaurant.

The presentation started with a Christmas prayer from Father Scott Schaffer, followed by words of gratitude from Suzan Fichtner, Executive Director of Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity, and from Donna Milana, Habitat’s Donovan Catholic Campus Chapter adviser. Suzan emphasized that we cannot be complacent when there are 30-35 homeless people (with many new faces among them) seeking shelter at the Warming Center at Riverwood Park under the county’s Code Blue plan, which provides emergency shelter for the homeless in extreme weather.

Suzan reminded the audience that Christmas is about “giving to others” and it is with “giving” that we “receive.” Our hearts grow when we show love and compassion for our neighbors – that is truly “what Christmas is about.”

Dick Read, a retired engineer and Habitat volunteer for 18 years, joined Suzan at the podium to share his story. “I had a successful engineering business for over 50 years and retired to the South Carolina golf courses only to find that my life lacked purpose.” Returning to New Jersey, Dick saw a flyer calling for Habitat construction volunteers.

“I answered God’s calling and the rest is history. My life is fulfilled because I am surrounded by a wonderful group of compassionate and caring people that live and work to make people’s lives better each and every day,” he said as he pointed to the audience.

Words of gratitude continued to flow as Eileen Smith, who is both a volunteer and a homeowner who received help through of Habitat’s Critical Home Repair program, shared her story. “Life was good,” Eileen said, “until I had a massive stroke that left me unable to continue my work as a Real Estate Appraiser. My life spiraled downward quickly and I lost everything until I found Habitat. Scraping together enough money to purchase a small neglected house in need of many repairs, I humbled myself and applied for help. It was transformative for my house and for my soul. It truly opened my heart again.”

“The act of giving back is so important,” Eileen concluded with heartfelt thanks. “You, the volunteers, are the backbone of Habitat.”

To bear witness through the eyes and the hearts of the Donovan students, Donna Milana proudly invited Nicole Jimenez and Olivia Lechner to share their thoughts and gratitude. Olivia described the faces of poverty that her dad witnessed while deployed to Africa as a Navy Seabee but added that there is poverty housing in her own backyard. “The need for low income housing and repairs in the area is incredible. More incredible, however, is the number of needs met by Habitat.”

“It is very easy to become distracted in our busy lives, especially as teenagers,” Nicole said, “but our club strives to teach young adults like myself that our community needs us and we can help. Habitat for Humanity has made me realize that when a group of people come together, great change can be achieved.”

The event concluded as everyone stood up and joined Pastor Sue Royle in song and prayer: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

The following day, the students of St. Joseph Grade School under the leadership of Catherine Roth gathered in the gymnasium to build a Christmas garden bench for Gloria, and her daughters Asiana and Monroe, the recipients of Northern Ocean Habitat’s 19th affordable home.

Aspiring to be service leaders like their “sisters and brothers” at Donovan Catholic High School, the students listened intently as Arnie Oftedal, a retired principal and valued Habitat volunteer, shared his story of “living his faith through serving others.”

Enthusiastically armed with hard hats, tool belts, safety glasses and hammers, Bob the Builder, Northern Ocean Habitat for Humanity’s Construction Director; Cristina Keresztes, Program Services Manager; and Arnie Oftedal taught the fundamentals of construction while emphasizing the reality that many of our neighbors live in poverty housing.

The students concluded their service-learning session by signing their names to the bench and writing tidings of great joy!