Despite a biting, cold wind and a dreary, overcast sky, a long line of mostly women and children stretched outside the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room on Saturday eagerly waiting to see what St. Nick had in his Christmas gift basket.
St. Vincent de Paul President and CEO Michael J. Acaldo estimated the crowd that wound from the front door down one block and halfway around another at about 1,000.
Clarice Petaway, mother of four and aunt to four other children ranging in age from 1 to 12, was the first person waiting in the long line.
“This is a blessing to me as a mom,” Petaway said after the children received their gifts. “Are you thankful?” she asked them, all clutching their gift bags. “Yes ma’am,” they answered in unison.
Inside, seated between two mountains of gifts, one for boys in red plastic bags and the other for girls in white bags, Diocese of Baton Rouge Bishop Robert Muench greeted each child and parent with a smile and a hearty “God bless; merry Christmas!”
“I’ve never seen so many people for this; and they are all enthused, and it really brings warmth to the heart,” said Muench, who was wearing a classic red Santa hat.
“This is one of the most fun things I do all year,” he said in between the children — some smiling and some somber.
Muench was assisted by volunteers who asked the child’s age then shouted it to other volunteers who found the gender- and age-appropriate bag and handed it to the bishop so he could personally give it to each child.
The long line, he said, is an indicator of “the needs of our community,” and he credited “the generosity of our donors” for providing all the gifts.
This was Muench’s 12th year as St. Nick, Acaldo said, and he compared Muench’s generous spirit of giving to that of the original St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in the fourth century.
“He is so committed to this effort, even though it has grown so much in the last 12 years — which is sad, actually,” Acaldo said. “Back then, we were helping three or four hundred kids, and we expect over a thousand kids today.”
Muench and Acaldo both credited The Needy of Greater Baton Rouge, which matched each gift or dollar with a gift of equal value.
“That (match) enabled us to be prepared for all these needy children,” Acaldo said. “Without them, this would be very difficult.”
Acaldo estimated they had hundreds of volunteers who began organizing and wrapping the gifts in early November.
As the children and adults exited the Dining Room out into a parking lot, volunteers provided them with cups of Kool-Aid and brown paper bags of snacks.
Radiance Fuller, 17, and four of her friends from St. Joseph’s Academy were passing out small red and green “goody bags” of snacks and school supplies to the children as well.
“This is a good way to get into the Christmas spirit and to help the community,” Fuller said. Despite the chill, the girls couldn’t stop smiling.
Latesha Richard was pushing Lanaysha, 2, in a stroller while son Jonathan, 9, carried some of their bags. “We do this all the time,” she said. “This is a real big help.”
The St. Vincent de Paul Society is one of Baton Rouge’s oldest charitable institutions, serving the community for 148 Christmas seasons, providing help to the most vulnerable, Acaldo said. They can always use volunteers because they serve lunch every day in the Dining Room and have large crowds during the holidays. For information, call (225) 383-7837.