Christmas cheer comes early for 623 children at parish’s annual party
By Julie Filby
Photo by James Baca/DCR
Santa sat ready with mountains of presents, clowns made hundreds of balloon animals, and pizza after pizza was served as 623, 4- and 5-year olds enjoyed what several described as “the best field trip ever!”
On Dec. 8, St. Thomas More Church in Centennial welcomed children from some of the poorest schools in Denver Public Schools by transforming the parish hall and gym into a Christmas wonderland complete with Santa, gifts, homemade cookies and candy, a puppet show and magic show, arts and crafts, and plenty of doting by more than 100 volunteers.
Nyasia Martinez, kindergartener from Horace Mann School in northwest Denver, and her classmates—faces painted, sporting Froot Loop necklaces and eating pizza—shouted out their favorite things about the day: “Santa! Presents! Toys!”
“I got a big present from Santa,” exclaimed Justice Martinez, kindergartener from Garden Place Academy in Denver’s Globeville neighborhood. “It was so big I couldn’t carry it!”
This was the 29th annual Project 600 Christmas party at St. Thomas More. It was started in 1982 by retired DPS teacher and principal Alvina Crouse. Crouse has watched the party grow from its smaller-scale beginnings.
“This started out because (Alvina) picked 40 of the poorest kids in her own school and wanted to have a party for them,” said volunteer Terry Krazer, a longtime friend of Crouse. “God keeps talking to her and telling her more kids.”
Crouse spoke with the Denver Catholic Register during a quick break from serving as Santa’s helper.
“The beauty of the party is it teaches our kids how to give,” she said. “If we don’t teach our kids how to give, we’re responsible for their stinginess or lack of community service.”
Project 600 also sends a message to the young volunteers, including middle- and high-school youths.
“Hundreds of wonderful kids work the party,” said Crouse. “I see it being duplicated all over … children will take this model and repeat it, and they’ll remember what it did for their own childhood.”
Photo by James Baca/DCR
St. Thomas More parishioner Joe Heasley served for the seventh straight year; this year he coordinated lunch for 750 guests and helpers.
“After you come to the party, you’re hooked,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see the children’s little faces light up. You can just see the joy in their hearts.”
He said the event runs like a “factory” as children progress strategically from station to station.
“We call it ‘organized chaos’ and it gets better every year,” he said. “Every year we get together and figure out ways to improve it.”
St. Thomas More youth ministry director, David Tschumper, has coordinated Project 600 for more than 20 years.
“It’s pretty unique in that you have a church serving public school kids,” he said. “Some college kids tried it in Oklahoma, but I don’t know that it’s been tried too much beyond that.”
When asked about the possibility of churches duplicating the event, for public or Catholic schools, he explained that transportation costs—which run about $300 per bus for DPS—are a challenge.
“The schools pay for the busses,” he said. “Most Catholic schools don’t have transportation … that would be the issue (because) we wouldn’t be able to cover the cost.
“I’m sure most churches couldn’t cover the cost,” he added. “I think you start out slow and go from there.”