Maria Garces is an assistant preschool teacher for a community based organization that services low-income families who also volunteers as a religious education coordinator at Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace in Coney Island. Seeking to solicit funds to help buy toys for the 142 Catholic Sunday school students in the parish, she reached out to The Tablet.
As fate would have it, she made the right call. Garces was not particularly familiar with The Tablet’s annual Bright Christmas campaign, but helping make sure that no child goes without a present on Christmas is what the campaign is all about.
“It’s all about putting a smile on a child’s face,” said Garces, explaining that every year Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace hosts a Christmas celebration for the Sunday school students who range in age from six to 16. The church has reached out to those who could help them buy toys and goodie bags for the children, who otherwise might not be receiving a Christmas gift, she said.
“On Sunday, December 18 we are having our small celebration and it’s all a surprise for the students and will take place after Sunday school class. All the catechists are aware that we are doing this but for the children it’s all a surprise,” Garces said.
As she sent emails to potential donors, Garces thought of The Tablet because, she said, it was a newspaper that everyone reads with stories that elicit compassion for underprivileged individuals. And that is precisely why The Tablet introduced the Bright Christmas campaign in the 1960s to make sure that children would have presents for Christmas.
Last year Bright Christmas raised over $117,000 that was distributed to those in need within the Diocese of Brooklyn. This year’s goal is to reach $125,000 wherein every single dime is distributed to parishes, schools and groups that request assistance.
Garces’ own story is one of faith and resilience. She came to America with her family from Guatemala when she was 14. She began attending Mass at Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace, then in 2012 Superstorm Sandy struck Brighton Beach, where she and her family were living. Their home was destroyed and they were displaced. Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace itself was hit hard and needed to be rebuilt. The pastor at the time, Father Armando Palmieri, asked Garces to take on the role of religious coordinator at the church.
She eagerly took on the opportunity to help out at such a difficult time. “Even though I was displaced and looking for a new home, I have deep faith in God and believe that everything in life has purpose,” Garces recalled. “So, when Father Palmieri asked me to work with the children it was exactly what I wanted to do. It was just a blessing on its own and I’ve been doing God’s work ever since.”
Garces also spoke of how her faith and perseverance has gotten her through difficult personal trials. The oldest of four children, Garces has endured the tragedy of losing her youngest brother, who suffered a massive stroke during the pandemic. Her other brother needed a second kidney transplant; she considers it a miracle that one month ago a donor was found and he is now recovering. Her parents and sister moved to Michigan to be close to her brother while she remains in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, a son, who is a senior in high school and a daughter who is in college.
Garces takes her role at the church personally by always reaching out to the families of the children under her care and offering anything she can do to make a difference in their children’s lives. Additionally, she prides herself on setting a good example for the catechists, who are always willing to “give their time and go that extra mile and offer an extra smile to the students. We want to make a difference and we want these children to feel it in their hearts through our teaching and our love.”