RUTLAND - They braved arctic-like windchills and battled an ailing local economy, but Mount St. Joseph Academy students were undaunted in their mission to help provide food to 112 families in need during Christmas last week.
Project Help is more than a tradition that spans 39 years, according to MSJ Principal Paolo Zancanaro, "it's about fostering the spirit of unconditional giving." And it's an event that inspires community wide support.
When word circulated Dec. 18, that the Project Help coffers were low, and only $150 had been donated to pay the $1,000 bill for its turkeys and chickens, funds began flying in from residents, businesses and especially parishioners at St. Peter's, Christ the King and Immaculate Heart of Mary.
"When we said we were concerned, this community really came through," Sarah Fortier, Project Help faculty advisor, said. "These parishes are incredible."
By the next week that figure had swelled to over $4,000, she said, adding that the balance will be used to purchase foods that students were unable to collect in their door-to-door campaign Dec. 21
The students looked forward to the project, said Kate Zambon, chairperson of the Office of Student Life, which spearheads the event.
"We look forward to this to start off our Christmas vacation," Zambon, a senior, said. "The students are always enthusiastic each year."
Zambon said the MSJ students also enjoyed "teaching the Christ the King eighth graders the ropes," so they can take over when they ascend to MSJ.
It takes a lot of planning and work, but it's well worth it, Zambon said.
What starts as a planning session early in November burgeons into a community-wide effort as time progresses. The students draw street maps delineating collection areas, set up teams, pick up boxes from area merchants and send out 600 letters to area businesses asking for monetary contributions.
Residents and businesses alike provide money or food products from their own shelves, and rally to the cry of the empty cupboards with copious amounts of food and cash.
The school's gym quickly fills with major donations from the Vermont Country Store and Freihofer's, while Price Chopper gives special pricing on potatoes, Hannaford's donates gift certificates and Grand Union provides boxes.
The entire student body canvassed Rutland neighborhoods Monday asking for food donations to fill 112 boxes with desperately-needed food, including a turkey or chicken. Larger families receive turkeys, with chickens provided to smaller family units, Fortier said.
"It's part of my Christmas," said junior Colleen Shouldice, who will head the project for Christmas 2010. "It wouldn't be Christmas without Project Help."
On Dec. 22, students delivered the treasures to area residents, using a list provided by Vermont Catholic Charities. Some families arranged to pick up their boxes at MSJ, while MSJ students delivered the majority of boxes to families in the Rutland area.