While many families gather Christmas morning to open gifts and enjoy a holiday meal, a group of local volunteers will spend part of their day serving and sharing a meal with young people they have never met.

Since 1984, parishioners from St. Rita of Cascia Church in Harahan have cooked and served a Christmas Day lunch to homeless youngsters at Covenant House in New Orleans.

“This is a program all of us look forward to every year,” said Pat Geier, a parishioner at. St. Rita’s who coordinated the event for many years. “Our first year, we had about 12 to 14 volunteers from St. Rita, and I believe we served between 75 to 80 kids at Covenant House on Christmas Day. And after it was over, we all knew this was something we wanted to continue with for years to come.”

Covenant House New Orleans serves as a shelter and offers services to children from infant to 5 years old as well those 16 to 22 who are homeless. According to its website, case managers and counselors help develop a personalized plan for each youngster that includes goals in employment, education, health and parenting.

In an effort to call attention to the problem of youth homelessness, Covenant House’s annual Sleep Out to Support Homeless Youth was held last month. More than 100 business and community leaders from throughout the New Orleans area slept outside on the sidewalks in the city. The event raised more than $365,000 for Covenant House New Orleans.

Jim Kelly, executive director of Covenant House New Orleans, expects there will be at least 100 kids on Christmas Day.

“When Covenant House opened in New Orleans in December of 1987, I was praying that someone would come and help in some way on Christmas,” Kelly recalled. “My prayers were answered when, out of the blue, I got a call from Pat (Geier), who asked if her prayer group from St. Rita could come and serve lunch Christmas Day. It’s just been wonderful year after year.”

Maria Blanchard, a coordinator of this year’s Christmas lunch, said about 50 volunteers are helping to cook and serve on Dec. 25 but added that more help is needed in the way of cooked food.

“We have plenty of volunteers to help us on Christmas Day, but we could use more food,” she said. “In recent years, we have served between 80 to 150 kids as well as some of the staff. So we want to be sure we have enough food for everyone.”

Blanchard said some of the items needed include mashed and/or au gratin potatoes, meatballs, pasta, fruit salad, turkey, hams, casseroles and soft drinks.

“Whatever is donated, it must already be fully cooked so all we will have to do is bring it with us, warm it and serve it,” Blanchard said. “Those wishing to help can drop the food off at my home beginning around 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 25.”

Although she is no longer coordinating the Dec. 25 luncheon, Geier will be there to help.

“Being a part of the Christmas Day luncheon has been a blessing in my life,” Geier said. “The kids are very gracious and most grateful to us. I thank God that, one, I have the opportunity to continue to help in this small way and, two, that these young people have a safe place to call home.”

“This is what Christmas is about — a time to reconnect with family, friends and your community,” added Blanchard. “To have a chance to be a part of this event is so special. For me, it makes Christmas Day just glorious.”

Kelly said the Christmas season can be difficult for the kids at Covenant House, but the St. Rita volunteers “make a huge difference.”

“For many if not most of these young people, they have never experienced the dignity, respect and love in their life that these volunteers show to them,” Kelly said. “They not only cook and serve the meal, but they also spend time with the kids, listening and talking to them. That makes a huge difference.

“Christmas can be a tough time, but what these volunteers do for these young people is fill a reservoir of pain with joy.”

If you would like to prepare a dish for the Christmas Day lunch, call Blanchard at (504) 813-1930 or email her at mariablanchard@hotmail.com.