Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer
Each year during the holidays, a small Christmas tree stands by one of the windows in the Sheil Catholic Center— and it’s not just a decoration.
Beside the tree are two tables that hold printed cutouts of mittens, each with a requested gift typed on it. Sheil employees, churchgoers and Northwestern students stop by the tree, pick up paper mittens, purchase the gifts and return them to the center, where they will be wrapped and delivered to people in need.
“It’s the whole community participating,” campus minister Tim Higgins said.
Higgins, who coordinates the mitten tree activities, said the tradition began sometime before his arrival in 2002. The recipients of the gifts have changed over the years, but this holiday season, the donations will go to three primary groups.
Hoodies and bath products will go to the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation — a restorative justice community between Fuller Park and Englewood — where people at the ministry distribute them to at-risk youth, many of whom have been incarcerated, Higgins said.
Hilda’s Place, a homeless shelter under the umbrella organization Connections for the Homeless, will receive items like hats, gloves, socks and underwear. Various Evanston families will get backpacks with art and school supplies.
Higgins said Sheil receives the names of participating Evanston families from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which gets names from other Catholic churches in Evanston like St. Nicholas, St. Athanasius and St. Mary.
St. Vincent de Paul often provides new names, but Higgins said many families from previous years ask for services again.
“A lot of times, we end up engaging with the same families every year, so you build a relationship,” Higgins said. “Our list has grown because we’ve developed relationships.”
Higgins said sometimes families invite him into the house for food or drink when he’s delivered gifts, and he’s gotten to know some of them outside of the mitten tree tradition as a fellow Evanston resident.
Sociology Prof. Christine Percheski, who attends mass at Sheil, also enjoys participating in the tradition, which she’s done for the past several years.
She said she uses the tree as an opportunity to talk with her 5-year-old daughter about the importance of recognizing how fortunate they are to have “material things” as well as good health, family and friends.
“That’s a little tricky to explain to a 5-year-old, but it’s really important to start early explaining to kids about inequality and injustice,” she said.
Abby Smith, a third-year statistics graduate student, is getting involved with the tree for the first time this year. As a service chair for Graduate Women Across Northwestern, Smith said she wanted to involve the graduate community in this project.
“Graduate students want to be involved in service but can’t make longer-term commitments,” she said. “And so I thought this would be a great way to give back over the holidays.”
On Thursday, Smith and a group of graduate women will shop for gifts, wrap them and deliver them.
Smith, who was active at her church in Baltimore, said she was happy to get involved with service here.
“I’ve done things like this before, but it’s always stopped at the wrapping phase,” she said. “Getting to deliver to the kids — that will be really great and special.”
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