By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published December 19, 2013
ATLANTA—The Christ Child Society of Atlanta, celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2014, continues the mission of “Challenging Poverty: One Child at a Time.”
The group has 70 members representing various parishes. The women assemble and distribute layettes of baby care items to mothers in need, collect gently used books for children, rock infants at Grady Hospital’s Special Care Nursery, and maintain an outdoor classroom garden at the Elaine Clark Center for Exceptional Children in Chamblee.
Providing the quilts and layettes to impoverished mothers is the Christ Child Society’s signature program. The group’s “brand new” endeavor, said board member Hendie Salton, is a partnership with Sheltering Grace Ministries.
The Christ Child volunteers spend time with the children living in Sheltering Grace housing so their homeless mothers can obtain skill training or go to job interviews.
At Grady Hospital, the volunteers are rocking sick babies whose parents must return to work or home to care for other children.
“They need that human touch,” said Salton of the fragile infants.
The group also maintains Elizabeth’s Garden at the Elaine Clark Center, dedicated to the memory of past president Elizabeth Huffner. The garden provides vegetables and flowers, but also a hands-on sensory experience for the special needs students served by the center. Christ Child volunteers use the herbs and produce grown there in cooking classes for the children.
Casey Long, the society’s president-elect, said “the garden and the babies” are her favorite things about the work. She loves sitting with young ones at Sheltering Grace so their moms will know they aren’t “forgotten.”
Long, who co-founded Christ Child Society in Atlanta with Ann Marie Newman, first became acquainted with the society as a child. Long’s mother and grandmother were both active with Christ Child Society in Cleveland, Ohio.
“It’s an interesting experience growing an organization,” said Long.
As a St. Jude the Apostle School parent, Long said there was “energy there I wanted to harness” among the volunteers.
Long said they began “baking” the idea for the local Christ Child Society in 2003. The group received its charter from the National Christ Child Society, based in Rockville, Md., in 2004.
Mary Virginia Merrick founded the first Christ Child chapter in 1887 in Washington, D.C. Merrick’s parents died when she was young, and she raised her siblings.
Partially paralyzed by a fall at the age of 14, Merrick started the charity to help others struggling with poverty in the post-Civil War years.
“Mary found Jesus in the needy child,” said Ann Doyle, National Christ Child Society historian.
Merrick started hospitals, settlements, provided tutoring, parenting classes and childcare all while suffering with daily pain and confined to a wheelchair. She needed the help of a steel brace to sit upright.
“We are taking our cues from her,” said Salton about Merrick’s vision to address the root causes of poverty.
Long also finds Merrick’s lack of self-pity inspiring. The idea is to “stop feeling sorry for yourself,” said Long, and start doing for others.
In 2003, the Vatican declared “Miss Mary” a Servant of God, and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has initiated the cause of beatification and canonization of Merrick as a saint.
The mission of the society is to serve children in need for love of the Christ Child. While there are 40 chapters of the Christ Child Society nationwide, Atlanta’s is the only group in Georgia. Members attend the national convention regularly to see what other chapters are doing. Long said the common threads are always the layette program and service to children.
Additional volunteers are always needed in Atlanta. Long said the group has experienced “growing pains” with the challenge of finding enough different things to do but not spread volunteers too thinly.
Christ Child Society of Atlanta does not have a central location, but several members are blessed to have storage space at their homes for layette items and donated books.
“I want to start a reading program one day,” said Long about future plans. She hopes to create a system where the children earn new books. Long already picks up books she finds on sale.
Currently, the society provides gently used books to children coming to the Grant Park Clinic for medical visits.
Recently, the ladies of Christ Child were on hand at the Elaine Clark Center to assist the children with a Christmas project. They helped the children create packets of dried herbs from Elizabeth’s Garden to present to their parents as gifts.
“It’s a wonderful school,” said Salton.
The garden is located right next to the center’s playground and provides a place for the children to learn about planting and growing or just to enjoy nature.
Salton said that the National Society has presented an award to the Georgia group for its efforts to expand membership. Christ Child Society of Atlanta received a speaker fee award and will use it to host gardening author and expert Walter Reeves at its first major fundraising event.
Salton said the event, “Dancing in the Garden,” will be held April 26, 2014, with other details to be announced.
Reeves, known as The Georgia Gardener, is an author as well as the host of “The Lawn and Garden Show” on WSB Radio. He also hosted “Your Southern Garden” on GPTV for many years.
“It will be a fun thing,” said Salton about the springtime fundraiser.
Those interested in supporting the Christ Child Society of Atlanta can also visit online at www.christchildatlanta.org. Donors can purchase aprons, notecards featuring photos from the garden, or a child’s rosary book by society member GiGi Taylor. Visitors can also pledge endowment support of the layette and garden upkeep programs.
Long said some of the society’s members are busy moms with families, and some are single women. Both active and behind-the scenes volunteers are needed, as there’s no shortage of work to be done.
“We have the children,” said Long.
Founder Merrick, who lived to the age of 87, was also the author of several books for children including “The Altar of God.”
Merrick viewed personal contact with the poor as the “true element of charity.” The members of Christ Child Society of Atlanta hope to continue that mission.
“It’s a great tradition,” said Salton. “There’s a lot of need out there.”