For over 30 years, Notre Dame Academy has packed up thousands of gifts. Hundreds of pounds or food as well as hygienic items and traveled to Harlan, Kentucky, to bring Christmas to those less fortunate. It began in December of 1989. NDA traveled to Harlan, Kentucky to bring Christmas to this little town in Appalachia. For 29 years, students, campus ministry and parent have braved snow, sleet, freezing temperatures, fog or sunny weather, and traveled to southeastern Kentucky to host a Christmas party for a group of needy Appalachian people. Before NDA hosted Christmas the party, it was held in a small home in the mountains. An Appalachian couple, Mabel and Lawrence Perkins, who lived in a coal mining town near Harlan, noticed little children in their hollow might not receive any gifts for Christmas. Harlan County, wedged in a valley between two tree-lined ridge mountains in the Appalachian region of Kentucky, is a beautiful place. However, it is also one of the poorest communities in the United States as poverty and unemployment rates more than double the national average. The Perkins collected used dolls, stuffed animals and toys, and cleaned and fixed them to like new. They invited the nearby children to their home, served homemade donuts and punch, and distributed “gifts from Santa” Each year the number of children grew were finally there too many for the Perkins’ home. The party was then moved the Armory building in town.
In December of 1989, Sister Mary Delores Gatliff, SND with a group of college women traveled to Harlan to help with a food basket project. While they were there, Sister Ruth Agnes, a Sister of Notre Dame who was principal of the local elementary school, invited them to go to the Armory to see the Christmas party begun by the Perkins. Even though the party was full of happy children and smiling parents. Sister Ruth Agnes commented, “I only wish the children could have a new toy. Every child deserves at least one new toy for Christmas.” Those words stayed resonated with Sister Mary Delores. In 1989 she began her ministry at NDA As she thought of a Christmas outreach project, she reflected back on her trip to Harlan. She felt that NDA could come together to donate new toys to the children so she made a call to the sisters in Harlan and a new tradition was born. This year marks the 30th year that NDA has brought Christmas to the town of Harlan. Eighteen students were chosen to make the first trip, in two vans, and three cars. Now the group travels on a chartered bus that is followed by a semi-truck that is graciously donated by a local company filled with gifts, food and equipment.
Some things about the Appalachia trip have not changed since that first year.
- An overabundance of students still apply to go on the mission trip.
- An overwhelming generosity of families, community members and local business donate gifts, food, services and equipment annually
- Same need. As the years have passed the need of the people of Harlan remains the same.
- The grateful appreciation of the people of Harlan. Parents have brought their children to the party for years and now those children are bringing their children who express their gratitude that they aren’t forgotten.
- Santa has always been a special guest and comes to Harlan every year!
Since 1989 there have been some changes:
- The number that comes to the party has increased to about 500 some years, unless an ice storm prevents some from coming down the mountains.
- A talent show and sing-song performed by the students has been added
- Each child and adult receive two gifts
- NDA formally traveled in parent driven vans with other vans and trucks driven by volunteer parents traveling behind with food and supplies. Now the group travels all together by bus and through a donation by a local company a semi-truck is donated annually to carry new children’s toys, stuffed animals, school supplies, and children’s books, as well as, winter coats, boots, gloves, hats, and scarfs. Gifts are ready and wrapped for the people of Harlan, big and small.
One of the biggest changes in this mission trip is that it has spurned another party for those in need right here in Toledo. The student interest to go on this mission trip is so high that NDA decided to hold an “Appalachia At Home” Christmas Party in Toledo. “Due to continued overwhelming number of student applications,” Mrs. Faye Smith, Co-Campus Ministry Director, explained “We decided a few years ago to limit this trip to only juniors and seniors. This project has become one that students have become so passionate about, we had to implement a limit.” The rest of the student body wanted to be involved so we have partnered with Queen of Apostles School and Parish here in Toledo. Students in grades 7-10 are able to apply for the Appalachia-at-home experience where, similar to the party in Harlan, the Toledo party includes gifts, games, lunch, and of course, a visit from Santa! For the past nine years, NDA parent of Autumn ’17 and Nicole ’09, John Maher has traveled every December with the group to Harlan. This year both he and daughter Autumn, will return again to spend the weekend in Harlan. “I am looking forward to this trip as I get way more out of it than I contribute. We all have talents and are called to use them. This trip allows me to see that in you, the students and parents, and myself,” he said.