The name "The St. Nicholas Project" might give people the impression it's something that happens at Christmastime, but this project is an ongoing effort to help children.
Named after the patron saint of children, "The St. Nicholas Project" was the idea of Father Lance W. Harlow as a way during the Holy Year of Mercy to connect the parishes and schools of the Diocese of Burlington to a Vermont residential school that helps disadvantaged children and their families by offering a safe home and quality education in a nurturing environment.
"The Year of Mercy is a bridge between the Church and culture," said the pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Williston and Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church in Richmond. "The Church in Vermont can cooperate [in works of mercy] with an institution that already exists."
Established in 1894, Kurn Hattin Homes for Children is a charitable home and school for boys and girls, ages 6-15, who are affected by family tragedy, poverty, homelessness, abuse or other hardship. Children come from throughout the Northeast when their families, for whatever reason, are unable to care for them, be it temporarily or for the longer term.
Kurn Hattin Homes' 280-acre campus is located in Westminster and includes a working farm, several athletics fields, a swimming pool, hiking and cross-country ski trails, a horse barn and riding ring, an apple orchard and maple sugar grove and numerous acres of land devoted to other types of agriculture.
In keeping with founder Charles Dickinson's original mission, programming focuses on the academic preparation, extracurricular and community involvement and social skills necessary for success in life. It also provides a stable home atmosphere and essential emotional support, enabling youth to grow up to make positive contributions to society.
Father Harlow has been involved with Kurn Hattin for 11 years as a volunteer and benefactor, since he was pastor of St. Charles Church in Bellows Falls where Catholic students go for Mass, religious instruction and sacraments. (Students of other faiths, too, are enabled to practice them while at the school.)
"I want to get the word out about the good work being done here," he said. Father Harlow began The St. Nicholas Project last year to link the work of Catholic churches in Vermont to the mission of Kurn Hattin. At first he asked parishes and Catholic schools to send Christmas cards to the children in Kurn Hattin's nine residential cottages. "We got an enthusiastic response" with numerous groups making and sending cards.
The children liked the cards, many of which they hung on bulletin boards. "They really had that nice, personal touch," said Sierra Patterson, house parent for girls 11-14 years old and a coach and substitute teacher.
Elaine Beam, principal of St. Michael School in Brattleboro, said students there sent Christmas cards to their counterparts at Kurn Hattin, aware that they were not with their families during the time leading up to Christmas. The cards reflected the message that they were thinking of the Kurn Hattin students at that special time.
"In the Year of Mercy, the focus is on looking for ways to reach out to others," she said. "We looked at this [St. Nicholas Project] as an opportunity to do a corporal work of mercy, child to child."
Next came a successful winter clothing drive, a project of Father Harlow's parishes, and then a pillowcase project.
"Our students don't get to bring a lot of bedding. This [pillowcase] is personal," said MaryJo Dansereau, assistant residential director. And they can take it with them when they leave the school.
The school provides bedding so everyone has the same.
But the pillowcases are unique, featuring Minions, superheroes, puppies, flowers and Nemo to name a few.
Talia Griffin, 14, an eighth grader from New York, smiled broadly when she saw her Minions pillowcase. "They are so cute," she said of the characters from the 3D computer-animated family comedy film.
She expressed gratitude for the kindness the people of the diocese have shown students. "It's important to have someone supporting us," she said.
Rudy Blake, 10, a fourth grader from Massachusetts, looked surprised when he saw a collection of pillowcases to be distributed to the students. "I know all these things are a lot of hard work," he said. "We don't have a lot of these colorful, neat things."
Many of the students come from families below the poverty line so they come to the school "with very little," Dansereau said.
Lisa Harlow Palmer, a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Windsor, has been making pillowcases for the children. "I wanted to do something worthwhile to benefit kids, and I wanted to have a hands-on experience, really be involved and hopefully make the life of a child a little brighter," she said.
She had the idea to make pillowcases for each of the 95 children currently living at Kurn Hattin. Two of her cousins, Rhonda McFarland and Sherry Greene, have made and donated 45 pillowcases; she is in the process of making an additional 45, and some friends will make and donate the remainder.
"It's been a lot of fun and very rewarding. I'm excited to finish the project and deliver the pillow cases to Kurn Hattin," she said.
Next Father Harlow hopes people throughout the diocese will help provide Kurn Hattin students with summer essentials like swimsuits, goggles, towels, summer clothing and pajamas and bicycle helmets.
Asked why he is so involved with the school, Father Harlow pointed to the commitment of the faculty, staff and house parents to the mission of the school to transform the lives of children and their families forever.
He also is impressed with the students: "They have good manners, they are friendly, they interact well and are held to high standards . . . . Moral and ethical standards are part of their education."
The school, he said, saves lives. "Many kids will say, 'Kurn Hattin is the only home I've ever had,'" he said. "It's a work of not mercy in a pitiable sense but in a sense of self respect and dignity."
Article and photos by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff writer