- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

Hundreds gathered inside Central Union Mission’s chapel in Northwest yesterday to kick off a week of Christmas activities for local children.

About 300 Hispanic families with wide-eyed children in tow filed through the mission’s glass doors to share in a kinship and find out what Santa had delivered during the annual Christmas Bag Party.

“Christmas is not just a season; it’s an attitude,” said the Rev. Jorge de Casanova, who has organized the party for five years and serves as one of the ministers at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield.

The party for families with children ages 7 to 12 was hosted by Central Union Mission and Immanuel Bible Church.

Christmas is “about sharing love, not only with family, but with each and every person we encounter,” said Mr. de Casanova, director of Hispanic Ministries at the mission.

Choruses of yuletide favorites, such as “Navidad, Navidad, Hoy es Navidad (Christmas, Christmas, Today is Christmas)” and “Noche de Paz (Night of Peace),” resonated through the room as children laughed and waited for Mr. de Casanova to present their gifts.

Santa’s elves, 35 volunteers, delivered bags full of presents that included clothing, toys and books.

Mr. de Casanova’s daughter, Abigail, 28, served as one of Santa’s elves during the distribution of 408 bags.

Ms. de Casanova, who lives in Alexandria, said there is no better feeling than to be able to share with others.

“This is a really good experience,” she said. “Many of the Hispanic families who come here are low-income, and it’s always nice to know you’re doing a little extra for others to ensure that they have a good Christmas.

“Christmas is very important in our culture. It’s the one time of the year families get together. And so many people don’t have families here. They’re in other countries, so this event unites Hispanics.”

Mr. de Casanova, 52, said families appreciate the annual event because many lack the money to spend on Christmas gifts.

“They are poor and do not have a lot of resources to buy gifts, and some families are not working and experiencing financial difficulties while others have a lot of children,” Mr. de Casanova said. He said the average Hispanic family in his ministry has four children.

David Treadwell, executive director of the mission, greeted the group in Spanish during a short program before the gifts were distributed.

“Through our long tradition, the mission has focused on those in need and it’s changed over our 120 years,” he said. “We started out caring for alcoholic men after the Civil War. In 1917, we started to focus on children and we set up a children’s emergency shelter that operated for 50 years.”

He said the children whom the mission now serves are from needy families, primarily black and Hispanic, and the needs of the Hispanic community have changed greatly in the past 15 years.

“There are a lot of hurting people, and we want to serve those who need us the most,” he said. “We want everyone we can possibly help to have a nice Christmas.”

Delmira Baiza, a mother of five who lives in Northwest, brought her two youngest children, Karla, 7, and Christopher, 13, to the bag party. She said all five children have attended in past years.

“I had a really good time at the party, and I have surprises for my daughter and son,” she said. “But they can’t open their gifts until Christmas. The Christmas bags help a lot. I’m very grateful and so happy for my children.”

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