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It’s an Easter snowball, in a way.

A project filling Easter baskets that started out as a parish school of religion project for 25 needy children has “snowballed” its way to an effort filling 733 baskets and involving volunteers as far away as Pennsylvania.

In 2004 Karen Mesler was teaching eighth-grade students in the PSR at All Saints Parish in St. Peters when they came up with a service project to emphasize that Easter is as important if not more important than Christmas. “The idea was to create these Easter baskets, put them together and give them to our St. Vincent de Paul Society” to distribute, Mesler said. 

The point was to make the project a reminder that Easter is a time to celebrate the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead, she noted.

The class embraced the idea, with the 12 students agreeing to bring in items. Mesler avoided asking students to bring in specific items so there was no pressure on them. “We were just going to see what happened,” she said.

When all the donations were gathered, they discovered they had so much stuff that one parent agreed to go out and buy 13 more baskets to fill.

The next year, a new eighth-grade PSR class made 50 baskets. It jumped to 87 the next year.

In 2007, a representative of a program at the parish called Shopping as Jesus Would, which collects and donates items to programs in the community, approached Mesler to expand the Easter basket ministry parish-wide. Students from the PSR and day school along with some adults handed out shopping bags with a list of desired items to parishioners as they left weekend Masses.

The donations filled 201 baskets, enough to pack Mesler’s Chevrolet Suburban three times and led to an assembly-line type gathering of volunteers putting together baskets at her home. She compared it to the Gospel story of The Loaves and Fishes.

“Each year it has grown by at least 100” baskets, Mesler said.

The number of agencies receiving baskets for distribution went from three — All Saints’ St. Vincent de Paul Society, Karen House and Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Center — to 10 or more. Karen House, a Catholic Worker community in North St. Louis, is a place dear to Mesler and to her eighth graders, since she brings them there as volunteers.

They added an outreach effort at St. Augustine Parish in Wellston, now the recipient of close to 200 baskets. Three other parishes receive baskets — St. Cecilia Parish in South St. Louis, Our Lady of the Holy Cross in the Baden neighborhood of North St. Louis and St. Charles Borromeo in St. Charles. Baskets also go to children of clients at Mary Queen of Angels, an organization in O’Fallon that helps unwed mothers with baby clothing and furniture; the Salvation Army in the St. Peters/O’Fallon area; Turning Point, a women’s shelter in Warrenton; foster families in Warrenton; and Bridgeway, a counseling center for women.

Now, Mesler said, parishioners’ donations are supplemented by outside donations, including businesses such as one that donated 480 handmade wooden toys and another that gave 200 bottles of bubbles. Also helpful was the donation of a delivery truck to bring baskets to Wellston.

“And I have a large network and friends and relatives who do clearance shopping after Easter,” Mesler said, jokingly calling them “black-belt parent shoppers” and noting that her husband forces a smile when she brings items in to store them at her house. She also related taking three of her boys along to fill up carts of clearance items.

Additional help has come from a PSR class at Assumption Parish in O’Fallon.

“It’s all by the grace of God,” Mesler said. “I never ask them to bring in X number of pencils and coloring books. I ask them to bring in what they can.”

It’s not unusual for the year-round ministry to have anonymous donors drop off boxes of play dough, stuffed toys or other items on Mesler’s porch.

Mesler is a librarian at All Saints School. A co-worker and Easter ministry volunteer, Jenny Kohls, cited the community aspect of the ministry. “You have people making donations, and people putting the baskets together. Such thought and care goes into each basket as they think of a theme. It’s infectious and has pulled everyone together to work on it.”

Kohls, who said her 8-year-old looks forward to helping deliver baskets, said agencies receiving them “are just so thankful to have something special to give those kids at Easter.”

Mesler’s spirit “pushes us all to think harder about how we can help others,” Kohls said.