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A Christmas tree for the homeless

Our Lady of the Lake extends holiday giving to people on the street


by: VERN UYETAKE - Bill Verheggen, chairman of the outreach committee for our Lady of the Lake Parish, displays a tag on the churchs Giving Tree. Gifts show up very fast on Sundays.The Giving Tree in the narthex of Our Lady of the Lake Church of Lake Oswego looks different than it used to.

Formerly, it was like most Christmas trees, surrounded by gifts for children.

But now it is surrounded by items like coffee makers, pots and pans, blenders, clothing, vacuum cleaners and microwaves ovens — exactly the kinds of things a homeless person would need if transitioning from the streets into their own home. Bill Verheggen, chairman of the Catholic church's outreach committee, finds it a very meaningful way to give at Christmas time.

"Six years ago I pulled a tag off the tree and it asked for a Nintendo box for dad," Verheggen said. "I thought, 'There's more urgent needs than that. Let's do something else.'"

"Something else" has worked out extremely well for Our Lady of the Lake in what Vergheggen calls "the unsurpassed generosity of our parishioners." Partnering with JOIN and St. Andre Bissette, two Portland-based organizations that work with homeless people, the parish chalked up some big numbers last year. For JOIN, which focuses on by: VERN UYETAKE - A supply closet is always filling up at Our Lady of the Lake. Bill Verheggen has to make a lot of deliveries for all the items donated by church parishioners.finding homes for the homeless, the church collected 284 gifts of household items and received $4,175 in donations. For St. Andre Bissette (formerly the Downtown Chapel), the Giving Tree provided 885 gifts, including backpacks, sleeping bags, boots, heavy coats and hundreds of socks, shirts and underwear.

During the holiday season there is always an abundance of goods stacked around the Giving Tree.

"People in Lake Oswego are very generous," said Verheggen, who admitted he was stunned the first time he saw a new microwave oven under the tree. "After Mass on Sunday, people come by to take a tag off the tree, and often that very day we receive the gift."

Things have a way of multiplying at Our Lady of the Lake, and it's not only Christmas gifts. The outreach committee has 12 members, but there are always 20 volunteers to pass out soup and sandwiches on the streets of Portland. As for the gift giving, hundreds of church members contribute. It is the kind of giving that really makes a difference.

"Sometimes people in Lake Oswego live inside a bubble," Verheggen said. "When they have a direct experience with people in less fortunate circumstances, it has a profound effect on them. For Christians that is an important thing to do, and it's all part of the Christmas spirit."

The church's outreach program for the homeless during the holidays has been a great success. But Verheggen would like to see it become much greater.

"You don't have to be a member of this church to give a gift," Verheggen said. "We would love to make this program city-wide if we could."

Gifts can still be brought for the Giving Tree until Dec. 22. For more information, call the church parish center at 503-636-7687. The church is located at 790 A Ave. in Lake Oswego.




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