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Modell family carries on St. Vincent Villa Christmas party tradition

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At last year's St. Vincent Villa Christmas party, Art Modell and his family were beginning their first holiday season without the family's matriarch, Pat Modell, who died in October 2011.

A year later the Modell children found themselves back at St. Vincent Villa for the Christmas party their parents loved so dearly, but this time without Art Modell, who died in September.

"I think the timing of this event is good for everyone," daughter-in-law Michel Modell said. "It allows us to celebrate…and I think we're ready to remember Art and Pat with happy memories. It's time for memorials to be over and everyone to move on, so this is a great way to get it done. They loved this event, they loved seeing everyone have a great afternoon."

The annual event the Modell family has helped throw for the past five years for the children who live at Catholic Charities' residential behavioral and emotional treatment center in Timonium has grown each year. The music, activities and holiday sweets at the party provide a little hope and a big smile for children who are not unfamiliar with sadness and pain.

Last year, Art Modell was a bit older, but like those kids whose collective joy filled his heart that day, he really just wanted an ice cream sundae.

"I know for sure he was missing his best friend and partner, my mom," David Modell said Saturday. "It helped distract him a bit, filling him full of sugar just like the kids."

This year, for adults in attendance, the specter of Art and Pat Modell's absence hung heavy. But as the event wore on, the simple joys provided by the decadently sweet party lit up even the most heavy-hearted in attendance.

As in years past, the gym at St. Vincent Villa was decorated with more than 150 Christmas trees of all sizes, which filled up half the room and created a festive atmosphere.

Dave Carberry, president of a group of St. Vincent alumni, said 160 volunteers spent an entire day decorating the gym — a fun, chaotic, but ultimately worthwhile effort.

"Most of these kids don't know what the spirit of Christmas is in this type of extravagant sense," he said. "It's just overwhelming in some ways."

The children decorated gingerbread men with candy and frosting, and later, worked with teenage volunteers from Our Lady of Grace Church in Parkton to decorate ornaments for the Christmas trees in their residential hallways.

They were treated to an ice cream sundae bar with all the fixings, as well as cookies, candies, cupcakes and hot chocolate. By the end of the party, most of the their faces were equal part face paint and frosting.

"I think I can speak for the family, the joy that we are getting and the happiness that we feel is 100 times greater than any of these kids feel right now, and I know that's giving Art and Pat great joy today," said close Modell family friend Sam Miller.

The Modell children know that serving St. Vincent Villa children was always a mission for Pat Modell.

"We grew up around it and we feel as she does," John Modell said. "This is the most important work you can do, especially with kids who are at risk."

No one understands that better than the St. Vincent Villa leadership, who relished their residents' joy Saturday and expressed gratitude for the Modell family's continued patronage.

"It's very exciting for the kids," Ezra Buchdahl, administrator at St. Vincent Villa, said. "Some were not here last year, so those who are seeing it for the first time are just amazed, and even those who were here last year — they continue to be amazed by how generous people are, to make sure they're having a good holiday."

Bill McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities, said it's "absolutely amazing" that John, David and Michel Modell are willing to continue the legacy and spirit of Art and Pat Modell, and bring joy to the facility's residents each holiday season.

"If you think about many of (the St. Vincent Villa children's) backgrounds and circumstances, they never really experience the joy of Christmas," he said. "This year, they get to do that in this very festive environment."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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