Worth Recognizing: Community Members Who Go Above & Beyond

Gertrude and Tommy Abel: Every Christmas is a shopping spree—for others

Since 1992, Christmas for the Abel family of Greenville has not been the same. That year they refused to get consumed by the commercialism, the buying and taking, the accumulation of things.
Instead, on Christmas morning they delivered furniture, linens, toiletries, pots and pans, clothes, food and toys to a mother and her child who had moved into an apartment from a homeless shelter in Wilmington. The Ministry of Caring, which provides support services for those living in poverty, brought the two families together.

“It became a Christmas tradition,” says Gertrude Abel. “We wanted to give moms committed to getting out of poverty a boost, a little bit of help by saving them the expense of purchasing these items themselves. It made us happy to make someone else happy.”

Friends and family wanted to help too, so in 1994 they also began to donate.

Twenty-five years later, more than 250 mothers have received help through some 250 volunteers who take them on shopping sprees for the best deals at Kohl’s, Walmart or Target. About $700 is spent on each mother.

“Gert” Abel and her son, Tommy, made the Christmas tradition official in 2006 by creating the Clif Abel Children’s Fund in honor of their late husband and father, who died that year. Its purpose is to buy household items for mothers, under the guidance of the Ministry of Caring, who move out of shelters into rented apartments, and who typically hold jobs or are in job training programs.

The Abel family became acquainted with the Ministry of Caring because Clif Abel oversaw the building of the ministry’s first homeless shelter for women with children. The shelter opened in 1983 on North Jackson Street in Wilmington. Clif ran the construction department at MBNA, the bank formerly headquartered in Delaware.

Last year, the Abels changed the focus of the fund from a holiday shopping program to an all-year support effort. Says Tommy Abel, an entrepreneur and business owner: “Christmas tends to highlight an awareness of those who are less fortunate, but poverty is not a seasonal problem, it’s a year-round problem.”

In Delaware, 35,000 children live in poverty, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project. And a single mother heads about one in three families with young children.

Jennifer Treen, a 41-year-old with an 18-month-old son, says shopping with Gert Abel five months ago turned out to be more than a buying experience. “She’s the kind of person who will give you the shirt off her back,” says the Wilmington resident. “My mom passed away 17 years ago. It felt good to be with Gert; she reminded me how it is to be with family. I’m so grateful for what she did for me.”

Year round, the Abels buy sheets and towels for the Ministry of Caring women’s shelters, toys for the birthdays of children in the Ministry’s daycare centers, and bus passes to help the mothers get to job training programs. They also sponsor two scholarships a year to elementary students, one for St. Peter Cathedral School in Wilmington and another for Serviam Girls Academy in New Castle.