ST. PAUL, Minn. — St. Joseph Worker Program participant Kiki Sykes knows by name the children she serves at the nonprofit Jeremiah Program, and she also knows that the ones experiencing poverty might not receive what they're wishing for this Christmas.
Sykes said she was looking forward to helping some of them feel "the joy of knowing they're someone" when she and the eight other young women serving locally in the St. Joseph Worker Program distributed toys to the children for the holidays.
"Around the holiday season, part of the culture is gift-giving, and not every family has the resources to participate in that," said Sykes, 22, who since August has worked in pre-admissions at the Minneapolis-based Jeremiah Program, which provides support for single mothers and their children. "I'm excited to contribute."
The St. Joseph Workers participating in the 11-month immersive leadership program started in 2001 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet planned to distribute about 150 new toys for children and teens at the local nonprofits where they work. The toys are left over from another nonprofit, Sponsor A Family MN, which matches families in need with sponsors who anonymously buy them gifts for the holidays.
The St. Joseph Worker toy distribution, now in its fourth year, offers the women, ages 22-25, the chance to serve the community in a festive way. Usually, their full-time volunteering focuses on health care, direct service, community outreach and advocacy organizations.
"They have a chance to do something outside the realm of their normal work, to just be joyful," said Andrea Pearson Tande, program coordinator, told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Typically, the toys go to organizations including the Jeremiah Program, Catholic Charities New American Services for refugee resettlement and several other projects.
Since the beginning of the St. Joseph Worker Program, up to 14 women ages 21 to 30 from across the United States learn each year from the sisters about spirituality, leadership, community and simplicity, and social justice. The program is Christian, though membership in a faith isn't required.
The women gain career experience and direction to serve the broader community while forming their own living community, said Sister Suzanne Herder, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet who directs the program in St. Paul.
St. Joseph Worker programs exist or are forming in several sites in California, Philadelphia and New York state. Some of the more than 150 St. Joseph Worker alumni continue to meet regularly.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet started the St. Joseph Worker Program after students at St. Catherine University in St. Paul asked for more spirituality and connection with the sisters, Sister Suzanne said.
The program gives young women "an awareness of their own spirituality, their own leadership skills," she said. "It gives them a compassionate heart for those in need and for themselves, and we teach them to have a compassionate heart for themselves, so they can do the work with those who are in need."
Sykes, who is from Kansas City, Kansas, chose the St. Joseph Worker Program after graduating from St. Olaf College in Northfield last spring because it blends social justice and community living.
"The Jeremiah and St. Joseph Worker programs are hopefully going to provide a platform for (Sykes) to do important work in the future," said Ellen Klahn-Grove, 27, Jeremiah Program family services manager, Sykes' site supervisor and a St. Joseph Worker alumna.
Klahn-Grove served in the St. Joseph Worker Program from 2011 to 2012 and sees how it prepared her for her current position.
"It's taken a few years out (of the program) now to realize how important and powerful experiences were and how they've shaped the things ... I'm passionate about today," she said.