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Joy Project celebrates 10th year of giving the homeless Christmas dinner and gifts

The Joy Project is planning its 10th year of events to make sure those living in temporary housing receive a Christmas Eve dinner and gifts.

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Marisa Bengtson holds a gift package for The Joy Project on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in her Moorhead Home. This will be the 10th year she has coordinated holiday meals and gifts for people without stable housing.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum
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MOORHEAD — Marisa Bengtson-Loerzel remembers the day in 2013 when she saw a school bus drop off several children at a hotel in Fargo.

At first she thought there was some sort of event happening. Then she realized the children lived there.

Asking herself what she could do for those living in temporary housing to make sure those children were not forgotten during Christmas prompted her to start the Joy Project. It started out with her asking friends and family to help put meals and presents together for the holidays.

“I want it to happen on Christmas Eve because I want people to feel loved that day and feel cared about that day like the rest of us,” she said.

In the first year, her initiative reached 75 people living in temporary housing. Bengtson-Loerzel initially thought the event would be a “one-and-done” project.

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But since then the Joy Project has grown exponentially and has lasted almost a decade. It's helped hundreds of families and expanded to include almost 700 volunteers.

Last year alone, the group set a record in reaching 600 people. The Joy Project served 600 meals, stuffed 137 stockings, gave out 106 gifts to children and handed out more than 300 blankets to those in need.

In 2021, more than 3,500 people received homeless services in Cass and Clay counties, according to data from the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition to End Homelessness. About 20% of that figure included children, and 1,156 individuals were part of families.

Those numbers could represent duplications, but the coalition estimated about 1,000 people experienced homelessness this year in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

In the first years, the Joy Project focused on people living in hotels, Bengtson-Loerzel said. However more people came on board and asked who else the group could help.

That includes local shelters, she said. She recalled taking Christmas Eve dinner to the Dorothy Day House one year.

Staff gave her a hug and told her the people who came to the shelter were slated to have bologna sandwiches that night, she said.

“Every year, something happens where I'm like, ‘Yeah, this was worth it,’” Bengtson-Loerzel said. “It's a lot of work, but it was worth the effort.”

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She said the Joy Project tries to keep Christmas Eve dinner traditional: ham, stuffing, sweet potatoes, etc.

During the pandemic years, volunteers delivered food individually to people. This year, there will be a sense of normalcy, Bengtson-Loerzel said. Meals will be served at Stepping Stones Resource Center, Project HART, Gladys Ray Shelter, Motel 6, Grand Inn, New Horizon Manor and Bright Sky Apartments in Fargo. The Dorothy Day House in Moorhead will also have meals.

Planning for this year has already started. Materials to create blankets, candy and other items sit in Bengtson-Loerzel’s basement. She's gathered leftover candy from Halloween and has filled two bins.

And the call for volunteers to cook Christmas Eve dinner, serve meals, bake goodies, host drives, donate money and make blankets has been sent out.

Every year, it seems like more people want to help, Bengtson-Loerzel said, noting last year she ran out of jobs for people to do.

Other groups have partnered with her as well, including the local nonprofit Warm Blanket Hugs.

Started by 15-year-old Olivia Allen, Warm Blanket Hugs collects homemade and donated blankets and gives them to people as a way to give them comfort and security, said Wendy Allen, Olivia's mother and nonprofit executive director.

The mother said it is hard to put into words what it has meant to work with the Joy Project and provide blankets to those living in temporary housing or homelessness.

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"It's something that is theirs that not only brings them warmth but comfort," Wendy Allen said.

More than 30 classes worth of Moorhead Public Schools students helped make the blankets, Horizon Middle School social worker Danelle Klaman said. They were really excited about it since they were helping potential students, she said.

So far this year, an estimated 176 students in the school district experienced homelessness, Klaman said. Doing something that directly impacts fellow students is a powerful opportunity, she added.

"Most people in general don't realize the experience around them until they are confronted with it," she said.

Having those blankets are not just physically helpful for people, Bengtson-Loerzel noted. It shows them that others cared enough to take the time to make the blankets, she said.

The effort takes a lot of work, Bengtson-Loerzel said. When she comes home Christmas Eve after it all, she's exhausted.

But she's happy to help those living in temporary housing, and that others in the community answered the call to help. She knows so many people share the feelings she has about the Joy Project.

“It feels good because I know that there’s a community backing me, and that community grows every year,” Bengtson-Loerzel said of celebrating the 10th year. “That’s a nice feeling to know that I have developed that project that people are proud of and want to be a part of.”

Those who wish to volunteer can contact Bengtson-Loerzel at mbloerzel@yahoo.com.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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