After 20 years, Gift of Giving Program still making spirits bright

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Even though she retired last October, it just wouldn’t be Christmas unless longtime volunteer Mary Lou Frias was organizing, bagging and wrapping presents for needy families.

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Without missing a beat, the former longtime coordinator of the Gift of Giving Program recently led a group of 15 students from Bishop Stang High School in how to select, arrange and wrap donated gifts destined to provide a Merry Christmas for a family of five who otherwise would go without.

“Your job is not only to wrap, but to quality control,” Frias explained. “Your eyes are the last eyes that are on this — and this could be all that this child or family gets (for Christmas). Your primary goal is to make sure everything is OK and does it represent a good Christmas for this family?”

For the past 20 years, the Gift of Giving Program under the auspices of Catholic Social Services has served to collect and store donations that come in from parishes, schools and organizations around the Fall River Diocese and then distribute them to needy families at Christmas.

The program is something akin to a central clearinghouse for items obtained through charitable efforts such as parish Giving Trees and benefit clothing drives.

Gift of Giving assists families and children from all over the Fall River Diocese. From mid-October through November, families of any religious denomination with needs that have not been met by any other organization may go to any Catholic Social Services office in the diocese to file a request for assistance from the program. Some supporting documentation is required.

According to CSS staff coordinator Dennis Canulla, the program’s continued success after two decades is due to the efforts of countless volunteers who keep giving back.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Canulla said. “I’ll probably retire (myself) next year but, God willing, I’ll probably still come back and help with Christmas. When you’ve been blessed, you’ve got to give back. And I find that’s what’s happening this year.”

Even though Frias relinquished the reins to Canulla this year, she still felt compelled to pitch in and help coordinate the volunteers to make sure the program continues running like the well-oiled machine it has become.

“Dennis is the (CSS) contact — we always have a staff contact, but they don’t do any of the volunteer coordination,” Frias said. “We’re really like the elves, and they are the ones who are the system.”

Having been involved with the program pretty much since its inception, Frias recalled starting on Slade Street 20 years ago, at the former Diocesan Department of Social Services building, where they worked out of a much smaller conference room.

“I think we had nine parishes that first year,” she said. “Then we went from there to St. Patrick’s Convent next door just before it was demolished. Then we went to the Donovan House before it was converted into housing. We also worked in the school building (across the street from St. Mary’s Cathedral) for a couple of years in one of the classrooms.”

For the last 14 years, the Gift of Giving Program has been based out of the CSS offices on Bay Street in Fall River.

“But we’ve outgrown it,” Canulla said. “It’s a blessing to have this space and it’s a good problem to have. But the need gets bigger and bigger every year. We’re serving hundreds of families now in Fall River, New Bedford, Taunton, Attleboro and Cape Cod.”

Indeed, as the Stang students were busy filling large sacks reminiscent of the one jolly old St. Nick will be toting around on December 25, Canulla showed off another batch of already-filled sacks lining one wall of the chapel inside the CSS facility. Lining the other chapel wall was a string of new bicycles waiting for kids to claim them.

“These will go out next week,” Canulla said, adding that they are still in need of boys’ bikes and large and extra-large boys’ coats if anyone is willing to donate them.

Although coordinated through CSS, Canulla noted that the program has also continually received great support from groups outside the Church. In fact, a group of Mormons from Rhode Island have volunteered to wrap gifts for the first time this year.

“There was a group of 20 Mormons here with their kids last night, and they worship in Rhode Island,” Frias said. “I’m guessing some of them may live close to us.”

For those who donate their time and money to Gift of Giving, the compulsion to give this time of year is a no-brainer.

“We’re all here to do one thing, and Jesus is the reason for the season,” Canulla added.

It’s obvious that the Gift of Giving Program not only benefits the families on the receiving end, but also those who — as the name suggests — get the “gift of giving.”

“I think it’s important for (students) to realize that this season just isn’t about them,” said Kathy Ruginis, assistant principal of academics for Bishop Stang and coordinator of the school’s community service program. “The beautiful thing about this program — because most of these students have already done their community service requirement — is they want to be here. They love doing this. If we can model for them what Christ is calling us to do, then hopefully they will continue to do it long after they leave Bishop Stang.”

“I think it really puts things into perspective that there are a lot of needy people in the world, especially in our communities nearby,” agreed health and biology teacher Katrina Paiva. “I think it’s definitely a good experience for them to see the need to help others.”

Maya Dube, a junior at Bishop Stang High School, said she wasn’t sure what to expect when she initially signed up for the Gift of Giving Program, but now she “loves it.”

“To see people who are less fortunate makes me want to give more and be more appreciative of what I have,” she said. “I plan to come back again next year. It seems like something I want to donate to and come back to a lot.”

Dube’s classmate, Maggie Steinhof, couldn’t agree more.

“It’s good to know that these families will be getting all these nice gifts,” she said. “It makes me feel better that they can have a nice Christmas too.”

Anyone interested in supporting the Gift of Giving program can send donations to purchase items to fill in the gaps for certain sizes and ages. Please forward a check payable to “Catholic Social Services” to that agency at 1600 Bay Street, Fall River, Mass. 02724. Kindly note “Gift of Giving” on the check’s memo line.

You can also make donations online via the following link —

For further information, please contact Catholic Social Services at 508-674-4681.

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