“They treat you like a hero. I’m no hero; I just do what I do.” Karen DiClementi of the West Springfield chapter of UNICO throws an enchanting Christmas party year after year for people with special needs and their caregivers. Through several initiatives, the West Springfield chapter of UNICO (the Italian American Service Organization) gives back to their community. But after over twenty years, the Christmas party stands out from the rest for Karen. “This is by far my favorite event. If we had to get rid of something, this would never be it.”
Holiday magic soars when the Christmas party starts at Mittineague Congregational Church. All of the hard work and planning by UNICO of West Springfield cumulates to create an undeniable amount of spirit. This year, the party will be held on December 15. The church is the official home of the party, and Karen hopes that never changes. “They’re amazing to us at the church. There’s no need to ever look anywhere else.”
UNICO is an acronym for “Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity and Opportunity. It was founded in Waterbury, Connecticut on October 10, 1922. Since then, several chapters have grown countrywide. Not every state has their own UNICO chapter, and they are primarily found on the East Coast. About thirty members make up the West Springfield chapter.
UNICO of West Springfield hosts fundraisers most often in the form of family-style dinners. During their 4th of July fundraiser on the West Springfield Town Common, over 700 chicken dinners were sold to benefit the organization. As Karen shared, “People really want to come to these. The food is fabulous. Sometimes, we have to turn people away just because of hall limitations.”
While other events such as the summer cookout are fun for UNICO, Karen always has the Christmas party on her mind. “I start thinking about this Christmas party in August. I work in conjunction with the West Springfield Parks and Recreation, and they send out all of the invitations. Caitlin in Parks and Recreation gets this all together for me. She knows exactly what she’s doing.”
The invitations bring joy and excitement to those who are invited every year. “They wait for the invitations, and they know when to expect it. If someone doesn’t get theirs by a certain time, I will hear about it!” Karen shared.
Guests are allowed to ask for one gift not to exceed ten dollars every year. They will write a short list of their top picks on their invitation and mail it back to RSVP. Shopping for the presents is special to Karen. “I go out shopping for the presents, and it humbles you to see what they ask for. When you see what is being asked for. You might think I’m buying something worth a million dollars. It’s special to them. I will do whatever it takes to get it for them.”
For example, one woman asks for a red purse every year. Knowing this, Karen always has her eye out for the perfect red purse, year round. She described shopping trips with her friends, where she usually finds several purses that may fit the bill. “I go back and forth saying to myself, ‘Will she like this? Or this one?’ I can’t choose and buy them all as I find them. I always make sure I have that red pocketbook.”
Another of the guests collects Hot Wheels toy cars. Karen would never be caught at the party without them. Every year, she goes to Walmart to go through the giant bins of toy cars, hoping to find a couple special ones he doesn’t own yet. “I dig for these Matchbox cars as if I am digging for diamonds. When he opens those the night of the party, I can’t even imagine what his eyes are going to look like.”
Expecting to see a few extra attendees, Karen prepares by purchasing several gift cards to places such as Walmart and Dunkin’ Donuts, careful not to leave anyone out. She stressed the importance of doing this, saying, “Never would anyone leave without a present.”
Providing those special memories moves Karen, bringing her to tears just talking about the reactions of the people she cares so much about who attend. Karen expressed, “You can never be too passionate about anything, but I can’t even explain it.”
Karen’s entire family gets involved in the event, making sure it comes together and brings Christmas magic. “In my house, it’s a family affair. Our family knows nothing different. It’s only what we know. We are a community service family. If we are able to do it, we will do it.”
Karen’s passion for the events knows no bounds. Two days after her daughter, Gianna, was born, she attended a monthly dance with her newborn baby. “I would never, ever miss it,” she said.
Guests of the party come from all over the local area, including residential, family and personal homes. Attendees sign up ahead of time to receive an invitation.
The night of the party, guests come ready for a great time. “We put on and cook the dinner. They all come dressed to the nines so excited. They sit together with caregivers in the background, and they have communities among themselves. It’s a nice night out. Santa comes and we sing Christmas carols.”
Watching guests, who return year after year, grow is a happy experience for Karen. “I’ve watched them grow up, and now they’re young adults. When you see them, it’s like ‘wow!’ They are amazing.”
UNICO of West Springfield is always looking for volunteers for the Christmas party, and Karen highly recommends it. “It’s a great, great event. We can never have too many members. This is the event to come out and test drive. If you’re not moved by this, I don’t know what’s going to move you. It’s awe-inspiring to see their reactions. It’s a wonderful way to kick off the holiday season. You get wrapped up in what you need to do.”
When the world is caught up in Black Friday, the perfect present and spending money, it’s easy to lose sight of what makes the holidays an important and special time. The UNICO of West Springfield Christmas party humbles those involved and creates endless Christmas spirit.
The amount of work that goes into throwing the perfect Christmas party is all worth it in the end for Karen. When Santa Claus comes out to greet guests and she sees the reactions on the faces of attendees, she knows the Christmas party is where her heart belongs. “Some of these people are in their 60s and 70s, but when they see Santa Claus, they become very emotional. I look in their eyes and say ‘This is what Christmas is all about.’”S