Numbers and years mount for Christmas charity leader

Sue Anderson has volunteered with St. James Lutheran Church’s Armful of Love program for 31 years, most of them as coordinator. Photo by John Gessner

Anderson in 31st year at St. James Lutheran Church

Numbers? Sue Anderson has numbers.

Generosity can’t be reduced to arithmetic,  but Anderson – the ever-efficient coordinator of charitable Christmas giving at St. James Lutheran Church – does keep track.

Under her guidance, members of the Burnsville church donated $414,688 in cash and gifts from 1987 to 2011, making Christmas a little brighter for 849 needy families and 2,728 individuals.

Another impressive total  is 31, the number of years Anderson has volunteered with St. James’ holiday program, called Armful of Love.

“I was young when I started this,” said Anderson, an energetic 69, “and now I’m not, which is fine. I still truly enjoy it.”

Anderson and her husband,     Lee,  joined St. James in 1977 after moving to Burnsville’s North River Hills neighborhood. A special education teacher who retired in 2006,  she started volunteering with Armful of Love in 1981 and has been in charge since 1985.

Originally, the church  directed its Christmas giving to needy church families and families referred through the well-known Armful of Love program run by Dakota County-based nonprofit  Community Action Council (now 360 Communities).

Located on Williams Drive near the Savage border, the church continues to work with Armful of Love in Dakota County while expanding its reach into Scott and Carver counties. It hung onto the Armful of Love moniker.

Gift bags are piling up this week in the secured church room where Anderson and her fellow volunteers – about 35 wrappers and five close assistants – are approaching their busy seasonal peak.

Anderson’s passion for Armful of Love is “contagious,” said the Rev. Walt Lichtenberger, St. James’ third lead pastor since she joined the church.

“Sue certainly puts her heart and a lot of energy into this ministry,” he said. “That’s what has carried this ministry for those years.”

It’s come a long way since Anderson’s early days,  when she’d buy gifts at Target for a few families and finish her work with a small wrapping party at somebody’s house.

Her records back to 1987 show annual cash and gift contributions of several hundred dollars growing to well over $20,000 in recent years.

“This church, as small as it is compared to a lot of other churches (1,300 members), has totally embraced this program,” Anderson said. “I think if it went away, there would be a lot of unhappy people at church.”

This year Armful of Love is sponsoring 121 people – half of them members of St. James, which draws from Scott and Carver as well as Dakota County.

Church members can grab tags from a table in the lobby to fill gift requests from fellow members, who remain anonymous, Anderson said.

“Our total program is based on financial need. There has to be financial need,” Anderson said. “And (within) our church, I’m never the one who decides who gets helped. They have to go to the pastor.”

Gift packages for church members always come with food and gasoline certificates, Anderson said. Armful of Love fills requests for everything from toys to mittens to the most basic household needs.

“It just breaks my heart when people ask for toilet paper,” she said. “I’m going, ‘Really? I would never put that on my Christmas list.’ But I’m not in need. When people ask for things like that, you know there’s a need.”

In 2000 St. James’ Church in Society Committee expanded Armful of Love to include gift buying for young people at Rezek House, a transitional housing program in St. Paul run by Lutheran Social Services.

Since then the program has grown to include seniors at Ebenezer Ridges Care Center in Burnsville, homeless youth assisted by Lutheran Social Services and the Scott Carver Dakota CAP Agency, whose Hope for the Holidays program serves families in Scott and Carver counties.

“I just love helping people,” said Anderson, who has two adult children. “I just think I’m blessed to have never been in need. I’ve never been rich or poor. I’ve always been a very middle-class person.”