Christmas common basket donates more than gifts; delivers hope

photo courtesy of Joy Miller and kids Anna, Maggie, Nick, and Paige

Common Basket recipient Joy Miller and her kids

Jackie Scherer, Katie Sisk, and Jackie Scherer and Katie Sisk

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This year, one family shares a story of loss with the students working to give their family the Christmas cheer they need. While students recognize the Christmas common basket and its call to help families in need during the holiday season, one family this year made the brave decision to invite students into their personal life. Instead of thinking of gifts, this family must struggle with the loss of a husband and father this Christmas. Benilde-St. Margaret’s students address this family’s struggles by attempting to give them the Christmas they need and deserve.

A Family in Need

Identities of recipients have been concealed in the 25 years of Christmas common basket operation, until this year when the Millers decided to reveal their story. “We had one family this year that was so taken by the whole program, she said she would be willing to let [students] know her name and know her story,” said Mrs. Likheus.

Joy and Brad Miller met after college and had two children before being surprised by twins to complete their family. With an eight-year-old boy, a five-year-old girl, and two three-and-a-half-year-old girls, the Miller household rarely slows down. “It’s a very active house. It’s a very loud house. Pretty much to be heard you have to be the loudest, which isn’t that good, but it just is the way it is,” said Joy Miller.

A tragic turn of events forever changed this family in late August, when Brad Miller died at the age of 37 of undiagnosed heart disease.

The absence of a father burdens the Miller household, rather than absence of money, but the need for support presents itself just as strongly. “Financially we’re ok, and we have lots of help from family, and neighbors are wonderful. But there’s just a big hole in our family with Brad gone,” said Miller.

Unlike the common basket from every other Mass, in which students are asked to make monetary donations, the Christmas common basket aims to ease the burdens Christmas can bring some families. “When we started the common basket program, [the Christmas common basket] just became a natural extension of the December common basket,” said Mrs. Mary Beth Likheus, coordinator of the Christmas common basket. “We don’t set out to solve someone’s financial woes, we just set out to help them with Christmas.”

Few can imagine the impact of such a loss, and Miller worries that even she has yet to fully comprehend it. “There’s just not enough of me to go around, so that’s been hard. Knowing that my kids won’t grow up with their dad has been really hard, and I think the whole breadth of that I don’t understand yet. And I know they don’t; I don’t think they’ll understand that for quite some time,” said Miller.

While the family grieves Brad’s loss, they remember his life as an active, happy, and full one. “He was a real outdoorsman––loved to hunt, fish, camp, spend time on the lake. If you could do it, he did it, and wanted his kids to do it. He took Nick hunting and fishing, and loved to go to Canada fishing. He took an elk hunting trip to Colorado several years ago with his dad and his brother and family friends. He just loved that kind of adventure,” said Miller.

Because Brad had such a strong presence, Miller and her children find the loss hard to acknowledge and accept. “The younger two, they know that he’s gone, but they still talk about him coming back, so it’s hard for them to understand. I think we just all feel like we’re just living in a bad dream. Anna still asks me every once in a while, ‘did he really die?’…It just takes a while to sink in,” said Miller.

Ordinary moments in life suddenly become more difficult and painful in the face of such a loss. For Miller, the fist day of school for her children posed a much larger emotional challenge than ever before. “It was only two weeks after he died, so I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh we have a lot of these to go––a lot of these down the road,’ and he just wasn’t there for that. That was hard…a lot of these first things will be hard,” said Miller.

Facing the first Christmas without their father changes the feeling of the holiday season, but Miller hopes to preserve the holiday cheer for her children. “It’s probably the most different for me. The kids seem to be pretty resilient. Hopefully we can still do the things we did. We would drive around and look at lights when it got dark at night, and obviously we’ll go see Santa. I’m trying to keep it as normal as possible, hopefully so the kids don’t really feel like it’s different,” said Miller.

This effort to stay strong for her children’s sake takes its toll, but Miller recognizes its importance. “I think that’s like my biggest goal for the day is to get through the day and have a normal day; try to be as calm as possible. Meals on the table, books at bedtime, fun bath-time. Having the kids probably helps me get through it,” said Miller.

Though this family clearly deserves the help they will receive through the common basket, Miller finds it difficult and humbling to ask for the help they need. “When you’re not used to needing help, it’s really hard to ask for help; but people want to help so I have to just remember that,” said Miller.

Help presented itself to Miller through Mississippi Valley Mothers of Multiples, a group for mothers of multiples to connect. “They meet once a month as a group, and they just address the stresses and concerns and things that arise with having multiples,” said Mr. Zecker, whose wife posted about BSM’s common basket on this organization’s website.

Through some deliberation, Miller realized the positive effect this common basket could have on her family. “I hesitated to even respond because I know there’s a lot of people who have it financially or kids with illnesses or people who are stuck in hospitals,” said Miller.

Patching the Hole

Miller’s participation in the common basket assists her family not only through gifts, but also through prayer. “It helps to get through. Sometimes at the end of the night I’m just exhausted…I think I just fall asleep before I even think about praying so its nice to know that other people are keeping us in our thoughts and prayers,” said Miller,“I think being able to show kids that people have different kinds of needs [is important]. Some of them are spiritual, some of them are material, but the thoughtfulness goes a long way,” said Miller.

Although most of the emphasis of the Christmas common basket goes towards easing financial burdens and shopping for Christmas gifts, the actual intention revolves around providing all members of the community more time and support through prayer. “It’s not so much the material things, although those are appreciated, it’s about the thought that someone [recipients] don’t know cares about them, is thinking about them, is holding them up in prayer,” said Mrs. Likheus.

The common basket also brings relief and joy to her household with the gifts they will receive, taking the burden of Christmas shopping off of her back. “I think it will be fun for my kids to see that people we don’t even know want to help, and it will help me…I’m wondering how I’m going to get everything done this Christmas season so that will be helpful too in case I don’t get to getting everything I wanted for the kids I just don’t have time to get it all, so that will be helpful too that there’s a little something extra,” said Miller.

Miller recognizes the importance of the depth of understanding students would have because of their maturity and wanted to share more personal information to further deepen their understanding. “I just thought that it would help them to understand what we’re missing…I think that middle school and high schoolers are old enough to understand what it would do to a family or young kids to have that loss,” said Miller.

Exposing students to her family’s grief further motivated Miller to share her identity and her story, in attempts to create stronger connections between herself and the students supporting her. “It’s nice that people will be thinking about us, so that’s another reason I wanted the class to be able to see pictures and be able to relate to who we are,” said Miller.

Students, by signing Christmas cards with prayers included in the gift, gain the opportunity to interact with recipients and comprehend the impact their contributions make. “The Christmas cards of prayers teach the students the concept [that the] power of those prayers lifts up people’s hearts more than just the gifts they’ve been given,” said Mrs. Likheus.

The Christmas common basket is appreciated by both the students and the recipients who would otherwise struggle to pull a successful Christmas together. “And then when [recipients] see the generosity, it’s insane…to see how they respond when they get this stuff. It’s really something,” said Mr. Zeckser.

Miller’s graciousness results from the great care and consideration given to her family by BSM students and teachers. “Just to know that the kids and teachers even considered our needs and considered us as a family to help. I’ll be very appreciative, so it’s nice to know that people we don’t even know are thinking and helping and praying for us,” said Miller.

Being a recipient of the Christmas common basket has further deepened Miller’s belief in helping anyone in need through the holiday season, despite her own struggles this year. “I wanted to still be able to take the time to do things for people in need so my kids still see that we have the time and the resources to give to people who need it, I want to still make that a priority, and I don’t want to change that,” said Miller.

Miller sees this outreach as both helpful to her family and helpful to the community as a whole, as students will learn an important lesson of generosity that others may benefit from in the future. “I think it’s really important that kids at school still learn that and still have an opportunity to reach out and help people…I think it’s really important to start it at a young age and then to keep doing it because somebody is always in need,” said Miller.

The Gift of Giving

Homerooms, rather than individuals, are assigned a needy family in the community, and the collaborated effort makes for larger donations and the feeling of personal support. “Each homeroom gets a family, and they know their story. In this case they see their pictures, they know what they’re about, and they’re praying for them…There’s a connection that’s personal; it’s not just some random people,” said Mr. Zach Zeckser, senior high religion teacher.

The annual Christmas common basket benefits all involved, as students learn the true meaning of Christmas as taught at a Catholic school. “We are the incarnation. We are Christmas. We are supposed to be the Mass of Christ, we are supposed to be the life of Christ in the world,” said Mr. Zeckser.

In the end, the biggest impact the common basket has on the students is the personal connection they achieve with families they have never met. “It makes it more personal because you learn about the families…it makes you feel like you’re giving a gift to your family instead of some random people you don’t know,” said junior Ellen Morissey, also in the homeroom.

Written by news editor Katie Sisk and online news editor Jackie Scherer. Staff writer Chloe Kennedy contributed to this story.

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