‘Blessing bags’ help Metamora students enter into Year of Mercy spirit

Joyce Heiple of St. Mary School in Metamora guides Ben Cronkhite and Anna Schmitz is assembling "blessing bags" of bottled water, socks, snacks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and an apple for the people served at Sophia's Kitchen in Peoria. The "blessing bags" were delivered by the eighth-graders at the beginning of Catholic Schools Week. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

METAMORA — What words would you use to describe “mercy” to a child?

“I told them when I think of mercy I think of love, caring, kindness, forgiveness. Those are words they can understand,” said Joyce Heiple, the second grade teacher at St. Mary School in Metamora.

It was important for them to understand that so they could enter into a Year of Mercy project that would bring blessings not only to them, but to those in need in central Illinois.

blessing prayer webWith permission from principal Jim Dansart, Heiple involved all the students in raising enough money to buy items for 101 “blessing bags” — one for each of them to assemble and send to Sophia’s Kitchen at St. Joseph Church in Peoria. She asked them not to approach their parents for money, but to make sacrifices throughout the month of January and earn it by doing chores around the house.

The students visited her classroom on Friday, Jan. 28, to place bottles of water, a pair of socks, nuts, a granola bar, a fruit snack, gum, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a fresh apple into a plastic bag. Before they zipped the bag shut, however, they were asked to sign their first name to a cut-out heart assuring the recipient of ongoing prayers and then offer the first of those prayers for their “special person.”

That prayer was the most important part, she told The Catholic Post.

“I didn’t want it to be another project,” Heiple said. “It’s important that they know they’re connected to this person in a little way.”

She talked to each grade before the students started assembling their “blessing bag” and asked them how it made them feel to earn the money. Many said they were proud and happy, while others said they felt “grown up.”

“You know why? When we do things to bless others, who blesses us?” she asked them. When they replied, “God!” she told them that he had blessed them for their kindness.

The eighth-graders delivered them to Sophia’s Kitchen as Catholic Schools Week began.

WORKS OF MERCY

Heiple got the idea from her daughter, Jessica Wiederholt, and seven grandchildren during a visit to Denver during Advent. One of the “random acts of kindness” she observed was the children making sandwiches to place into “blessing bags” and then distributing them to the homeless in Denver’s inner city.

“I was very touched,” Heiple said. “It was neat to see them fearless. They just jumped out of the car and ran up to anyone they saw.”

She had “blessing bags” to distribute, too, but found herself a little more hesitant.

Katie Devitt shares a "blessing bag" with 3-year-old Rylan and his mother Kerston at Sophia's Kitchen in Peoria. The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems

Katie Devitt shares a “blessing bag” with 3-year-old Rylan and his mother Kerston at Sophia’s Kitchen in Peoria. The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems

“They went up and gave them hugs and said, ‘Merry Christmas!’ Then they ran back to the car and got some more. I was blown away,” she said.

Heiple had worked in public schools for 29 years and was retired for three before she accepted the job at St. Mary School last fall. She knew what she had witnessed in Denver would be perfect for the Year of Mercy and said, “This is what Catholic education is all about.”

The items for the “blessing bags” she designed were intended to reinforce the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy: giving drink to the thirsty, giving food to the hungry, and clothing the naked.

In addition to the money, students donated clothing that was given to the Dream Center in Peoria. Teacher Barb Clem also made 350 fleece hats for people to sponsor for $1 or buy for $5, with the funds helping to buy items for the “blessing bags.”

“It doesn’t surprise me because I’ve known Joyce forever,” Dansart said. “When she comes to me and says, ‘I’m thinking about this idea. What do you think?’ I always tell her to run with it.

“She’s just a great spiritual leader for our school,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have her.”

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