Olivia Boettcher carefully picked out items for an Easter basket: two small stuffed animals, a Hello Kitty coloring book, crayons, a Julius Jr. First Step to Reading book, bubbles, a puzzle with a scene from the movie "Frozen," Play-Doh and lip gloss.
"It's really fun to do this, and I think it's nice to give stuff to other people who need it," said Olivia, a second-grader at the school.
Second-graders from Immaculate Conception School in Old Monroe led a parish-wide collection of items for the service project, donating about a dozen boxes and $42. The students promoted the project with posters around school and church, then staffed a collection area after weekend Masses.
At a donated storefront warehouse in St. Peters they filled baskets that included items donated from other collections, which helped ensure baskets were age-appropriate and included similar items — each with a book, for example. Then students took the baskets back to their parish for distribution to needy residents by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference.
It's all part of a program called Alleluia Baskets — or Watermelon Baskets as Father Michael Grosch, pastor of St. Michael Parish in Shrewsbury, calls it until Easter.
The program donates baskets to children served by 33 organizations, including homeless shelters, food pantries, and St. Vincent de Paul Society conferences. Since the start in 2004, nearly 13,000 Easter baskets have been given to children. The first volunteers were Karen Mesler's family and close friends. Now, the volunteer base of about 600 people come from seven Catholic schools (full time and PSR) in the archdiocese, a Knights of Columbus council from All Saints Parish in St. Peters, a fire department, the St. Ann Ladies' Club at Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish in St. Charles, Scouting groups and numerous small businesses.
This year, 3,000 baskets will be given to children in need.
Lisa Day, mother of a second-grader and kindergartner at Immaculate Conception, was among the moms accompanying the students to the packaging site. She appreciates the program's focus on remembering others at Easter. "It reinforces the concept of giving and taking care of people in need as a year-round effort, not just the Christmas season," Day said.
Immaculate Conception principal Janice Palmer endorsed the program wholeheartedly. "It's great for kids to do service to the community, to realize there's people out there less fortunate than them," Palmer said. "It's helping people in our community and beyond. Our community is a very giving community. ... Anytime we do a service project or collection we are overwhelmed with generosity."
Luke Grupe had already filled a basket for a boy and now was filling a backpack for a girl. He picked out a Zhu Zhu pet toy to go with a stuffed animal and other items. "I really like that this helps children," Grupe said. "It's such a good deed to do."
>> An Easter 'snowball'
A project filling Easter baskets that started out as a parish school of religion project for 25 needy children "snowballed" into an effort filling 3,000 baskets and involving 600 volunteers.
In 2004, Karen Mesler was teaching eighth-grade students in the PSR at All Saints Parish in St. Peters when they came up with a service project to emphasize that Easter is as important as, if not more important than, Christmas. "The idea was to create these Easter baskets, put them together and give them to our St. Vincent de Paul Society" to distribute, Mesler said.
The point was to make the project a reminder that Easter is a time to celebrate the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead, she noted.
The class embraced the idea, with the 12 students agreeing to bring in items. Mesler avoided asking students to bring in specific items so there was no pressure on them. "We were just going to see what happened," she said.
When all the donations were gathered, they discovered they had so much stuff that one parent agreed to go out and buy 13 more baskets to fill.
The next year, a new eighth-grade PSR class made 50 baskets. In 2007, a representative of a program at the parish called Shopping as Jesus Would, which collects and donates items to programs in the community, approached Mesler to expand the Easter basket ministry parish-wide. The donations filled 201 baskets, enough to pack Mesler's Chevrolet Suburban three times and led to an assembly-line type gathering of volunteers putting together baskets at her home. She compared it to the Gospel story of The Loaves and Fishes.
The number of agencies receiving baskets for distribution quickly went from three — All Saints' St. Vincent de Paul Society, Karen House and Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Center — to 33 today.
For more information or to assist the ministry, visit www.alleluiabaskets.org or at www.facebook.com/alleluiabaskets.