By Marge Crnkovich with assistance from Lynne Deal
In 1997, a group of women in Naples decided there was more to life than golf, tennis, bridge and the beach. They wanted to help needy children. They decided to start a new chapter of the National Christ Child Society to be called the Christ Child Society of Naples. Lynne Deal, a former member of the Columbus, Ohio chapter and the founder of the Toledo, Ohio chapter, and Jean Voth started the ball rolling. National Christ Child was thrilled and agreed that this was to be a non-denominational chapter, since many of the founding members were not Roman Catholic.
After many phone calls to the Venice office of the Archdiocese, we were granted permission as an unincorporated chapter and received our 501c3 classification. Our first spiritual advisor was Father Don Henry of St. John the Evangelist Parish.
With all the paperwork in place, the first official meeting was held in January 1998 at the Boathouse of the Collier Reserve Country Club. The next step was fundraising to support our first projects – layettes and partnering with Golden Terrace School in the Golden Gate area of Naples. The small group held a progressive lasagna dinner with about six members and their spouses. The spouses not only paid for the dinner, but they also had to pay to eat it! A total of $500 was raised. Our chapter continued to grow not only with women who belonged to other Christ Child chapters in the United States, but also with many wonderful ladies who had never before heard of the Christ Child Society. By 2016, we had a membership of 190 and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours.
Evolution of our Projects
Joanne Halstead started working with the layette project shortly after the chapter was established. Our chapter continues to focus on the importance of this project. To date, more than 10,000 layettes have been distributed to needy moms who have a newborn. Most layettes include beautiful, handmade blankets that many women have spent thousands and thousands of hours knitting or crocheting. These gifts to the moms provide a fresh start for the new baby.
Golden Terrace School wanted the ladies to read to the children, and they became the “Rocking Grannies.” After two years, the members wanted to do more at the school, but the administration did not want to expand the program. We then adopted Golden Gate Elementary School, which was delighted to welcome our volunteers. It is a partnership which continues today. Many projects were established to help meet the needs of the children, including a physical challenge track, a butterfly garden with benches for reading outdoors, running team uniforms and bicycle helmets for safety in riding to school since there is no bus transportation. We provided funds for vegetable gardens that fit with the science program. Mary Anne Palma obtained a $50,000 grant from Target Corporation which allowed us to upgrade the library and provide computers, copy machines and other needed items to the school. The remaining funds were used to upgrade other school libraries in poor condition.
Our list of projects grew. These included furnishing beds with bedding and books for children in Habitat for Humanity homes and tutoring at Fun Time Academy. One early project at Fun Time was the purchase of a large red wagon that could be used to safely transport babies out of the trailers in the event of fire. We have also provided summer scholarships for Fun Time students in addition to many literacy volunteers.
A variety of agencies have called on us to meet particular needs of children, including the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collier County (CAC). Because of the special recording equipment we purchased to record their testimony, many abused children were spared having to appear in court in person. We also give Pack and Play cribs to the CAC to give infants a safe place to sleep. We supplied “My Stuff Bags” to the Center for children taken unexpectedly from their homes with nothing of their own. These bags contained new clothes, pajamas, personal care items, a toy, a book and a stuffed animal.
We provided volunteers to the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile which offers free dental care to needy children. Further, we established the ELLM reading Readiness Program for Head Start students, provided volunteers and furnished support to Grace Place, sewed infant Grieving Gowns for babies lost at birth, and provided new parents with the baby care book Bringing Baby Home in English, Spanish and Creole. As with all Christ Child chapters, layettes have always been an integral part of our program
Our yearly fundraiser morphed from being held in members’ homes to a lawn cocktail party at Tiburon Golf Club. For a tenth year celebration, then President Valery Moore planned a party with balloons and many special treats. Each attendee received a key, only one of which would open a glass case holding a beautiful piece of jewelry donated by Bigham Jewelers. Ellen Ryan held the lucky key. All the years at Tiburon, we were outdoors and never had rain. Unbelievable! Since Tiburon, the party has become a sit-down dinner and has moved to a variety of locations, including The Ritz Carlton Hotel, Port Royal Club, The Botanical Gardens and Grey Oaks Country Club. In 2015, we decided to have our fundraiser, now known as the Red Wagon Gala (for the red wagon given to the young boy by our national founder Mary Virginia Merrick) every two years instead of annually. Central to this special night has been the “Fund the Need,” and live auctions. Since 2008, Bigham Jewelers has been a special benefactor, donating lovely jewelry for a popular raffle each year. In the off years that the Gala is not held, we hold the very successful “Keep the Wheels Rolling.” Members are asked to donate and this has brought at least $100,000 each time to fund the services we provide.
In other areas, there were many developments. Pat Schneider started our newsletter, “Childhood Matters.” Pat wrote and published the newsletter by running it off on the copiers at the Habitat for Humanity office and mailing it with the help of members. After Pat’s untimely death, Nancy Tarika took over the newsletter and all communications. Funding was tight, so Nancy secured a grant to underwrite this new development. Subsequently, Mark Johnston Associates donated services to create our original website.
Julia Van Domelen secured a grant to fund a project creating a cookbook from members’ recipes called Nobody Wants to Cook in Naples. Dottie Gerrity’s son did the artwork. The book sold 10,000 copies and is still being used today. Another project was a contest for the children of Golden Gate Elementary who were asked to design a Christmas card. The winner drew a Sandman instead of a Snowman. We made Christmas cards from this and sold them as a fundraiser. Another fun moneymaker! By 2013, we had given more than $1,000,000 to the needy children of Collier County.
Returning to Our Core
By 2015, Christ Child Society of Naples was working with 18 different agencies. Since we only operate six months a year (November through April), and we are an all-volunteer organization, the Board decided it was necessary to cut back on the number of projects. After much study and member feedback, we decided to concentrate on our three core areas: Infant Care (Layettes and Bringing Baby Home books), Basic Needs (Habitat for Humanity, Grace Place, Children’s Advocacy Center) and Literacy (ELLM, Golden Gate Elementary School and Fun Time Academy). Programs dropped were turned over to other agencies.
Member Gatherings in Addition to Meetings
Several other annual events bring members together. The December Christmas Party provides toys for needy children while celebrating the holiday season. The New Member Reception in January provides new members with an overview of all of our projects. The Founders Luncheon is a favorite event each February. Held in a variety of locations, it has featured style shows, authors and other fun entertainment.
All this activity has provided the chapter with a number of special memories over the years. One time Kay Tyrell, while speaking with an immigrant mother, mentioned 911. That very evening, the woman’s baby fell from a sofa and became unresponsive. The mother remembered 911, called, and the baby was saved.
The Joanne Halstead Award
In 2008, The Joanne Halstead Award was created to recognize the contributions of super volunteers. It was named for the first recipient, Joanne Halstead, who was given the honor for her work with layettes. Subsequent winners were Marge Crnkovich (2009), Nancy Tarika (2010), Mary Pollizzoto (2012), Stephanie Lohri and Maureen Kincaid (2013), Gail Garratt (2014), and Kathleen Flynn Fox and Terry Schrantz (2016) Diane Ebben (2017), Pat Limbach (2019).
Past Presidents and Co-Presidents
The list of Presidents and Co-Presidents, listed alphabetically is as follows: Jane Austermiller, Catherine Boltz, Kathleen Clark, Nancy Deakins, Lynne Deal, Judy Fahey, Diane Fall, Kathleen Flynn Fox, Mary Frey, Dottie Gerrity, Sue Keene Lipman, Sue Manion, Colleen Mayes, Valery Moore, Ginny Mulaney, Peggy Nolan, Mary Ellen Palma, Kathy Pezzuti, Ellen Ryan, Terry Schrantz, Patty Schimpf, Julia Van Domelen and Jean Voth.
Word of mouth became a wonderful thing for our chapter, and we have grown steadily over the years. Our organization is highly regarded in the area for all the good work that we do. After only two years of partnering with Golden Gate Elementary, the Collier County Education Foundation named the Christ Child Society of Naples Outstanding Business Partner. This chapter is vibrant and should function for many years to come. Clearly we have taken to heart founder Mary Virginia Merrick’s words, “Nothing is ever too much to do for a child.”