Carra Gilson, 16, Calla Gilson, 18, and Maggie Burlingame, 18, from left, gather Christmas presents in the kitchen of Notre Dame Academy in Toledo to load into a storage container during final preparations for the school’s Christmas in Appalachia Celebration in Harlan, Ky.
THE BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH
The girls of Notre Dame Academy soon will be overwhelmed.
Not from classwork or high school drama, but from an annual trip to Appalachia.
For 25 years, students, school staff, parents, and members of the Sisters of Notre Dame have headed to Harlan, Ky., to distribute gifts and clothes, host Christmas parties, and serve food. They’ll make their way to Harlan again this weekend.
The Christmas in Appalachia Celebration is an annual tradition started by Sister Mary Delores Gatliff, provincial of the Sisters of Notre Dame’s Toledo Province.
Students will distribute about 1,000 gifts to about 450 residents of the town, and they’ll bring a donated semi trailer filled with toys, clothes, books, and school supplies to give away. They’ll also run a toy store, where items donated to a Harlan church are sold at low cost to community members.
The small town in southeastern Kentucky is coal-mining country. Although the students said the drive down to Harlan is beautiful, it becomes apparent on the way that the community could use some help around the holidays.
“The need keeps growing down there,” said Sister Jenny Zimmerman, Notre Dame co-director of pastoral services.
Students who have made the trip before say they love having the chance to give back. They learn the importance of charity and good will toward others, and also how good many of them have it compared to others.
“I think there’s a deeper appreciation for our own lives,” said Maggie Burlingame, 18, who is set to make her fourth visit to Harlan. “Christmas is so much more than just giving and receiving gifts.”
Students stay in a preschool and work in a church basement. They bring games for the long trip, and bring back memories of who they met.
It’s not just a service learning experience. Calla Gilson, 18, who is making her second trip to Harlan, said she saw the personal effect of public policy and social changes, as coal mines in the area have shut down and former coal workers struggle to find jobs.
“Overwhelming,” she said. “That’s how I would describe the whole experience.”
But that doesn’t mean she won’t encourage others to go. Girls who have made the trip sing praises of the experience.
Carra Gilson, 16, is going to Harlan for the first time.
“When they come back, they say how [Harlan residents] were so excited to see us again,” she said.
There’s no shortage of volunteers. There were about 45 spots available to students for the trip; more than 100 signed up, forcing the school to use a random draw to select participants.
“I think it speaks to the girls in the school,” Sister Jenny said of the number who signed up.
With so many students who wanted to help, the school last year began an “Appalachia at Home” dinner, where students who stay in Toledo serve food and host a holiday party for about 250 family members of children who attend Queen of Apostles Parish. They’ll hold that event again Saturday.