Holiday Service Project Brings Christmas Gifts to Temple Square Missionaries

Contributed By Clarissa McIntire, Church News staff writer

  • 7 December 2018

Sister missionaries on Temple Square open gift bags donated by the Holiday Service Project in December 2017.  Photo courtesy of Jerri-Ann Sturzenegger.

Article Highlights

  • Many missionaries on Temple Square don’t often receive packages from home.
  • A former missionary and her mother sent every missionary a Christmas gift for the past two years.

“It was amazing to see those sisters who’d never gotten a Christmas present before, just because their culture doesn’t celebrate Christmas.” —Blakely Sturzenegger

“Mom, please stop sending me so many packages.”

That’s a phrase not many mothers of full-time missionaries expect to hear—but that’s the message Jerri-Ann Sturzenegger received from her daughter, Blakely, while Blakely was serving full-time in the Salt Lake City Temple Square Mission in December 2016. The reason? Blakely noticed her companion, Sister Yi Yi Liu, was being left out.

“There was a table where [the mission leaders] would put all the packages, and we would come by at the end of the day to see if any packages had been sent for us,” said Blakely. “There were tons of packages for those who were from the U.S., but almost never any for sisters from outside the U.S.”

Long distances and shipping prices made it difficult for some of the sisters to receive anything from home during their missions. That’s why Sister Sturzenegger wrote home to her family in Georgia, asking them to stem the flow of mail. Then she had an idea.

“I talked to my mom and I was like, can we get a package together for Sister Liu?” Blakely said. And from that suggestion came the idea to put together a gift not just for Sister Sturzenegger’s companion, but for every sister in the mission—about 200 missionaries—for the December 2016 Christmas season.

“Everybody just jumped in”

“As sisters in the mission, we would only get so much money a month, and it wasn’t very much,” said Blakely. Often, that meant being unable to purchase some desired items. Blakely and her family decided to assemble packages filling those sorts of needs: “Things like a toothbrush, umbrella, water bottle—that was really special. … And there’d be necklaces or bracelets or scarves, things that sisters just would’ve gone without,” Blakely said.

Blakely’s mother, Jerri-Ann, reached out to other members of her ward, the Hamilton Mill Ward, Sugar Hill Stake, in Flowery Branch, Georgia, to see if they wanted to help. Her sister and sister-in-law who lived in Salt Lake City also contacted their ward members. Those who volunteered were given a list of suggestions for things to include in the packages, and drawstring bags emblazoned with a Temple Square Mission logo designed by Blakely’s cousin, Tom Sturzenegger, were ordered to hold the gifts.

Blakely Sturzenegger, standing with her companion, Sister Ete, served as a missionary in the Salt Lake City Temple Square Mission from June 2016 to March 2018. Photo courtesy of Jerri-Ann Sturzenegger.

Blakely Sturzenegger and some of the sister missionaries on Temple Square stand for a photo. Photo courtesy of Jerri-Ann Sturzenegger.

Kaitlyn Torrez, a young woman in the Collins Hill Ward, Lilburn Stake, in Georgia compiled 30 gift packages as part of a Personal Progress project. Photo courtesy of Jerri-Ann Sturzenegger.

In December 2017, the second year of the Holiday Service Project, volunteers included self-addressed envelopes in the packages so sister missionaries could write back to those who donated gifts. Photo courtesy of Jerri-Ann Sturzenegger.

“Everybody just jumped in and said, ‘I’ll take a bag,’ ‘I’ll take four bags,’” said Jerri-Ann. “Some young women jumped in and said, ‘I’ll take 20—I’ll use it as a Personal Progress project.’ And it just kind of went from there.” They called the effort “the Holiday Service Project.”

When Christmas drew near, Jerri-Ann flew with the packages from Georgia to Salt Lake City. She combined the gifts with those gathered by her Utah-based relatives, and they dropped them off at the mission home on Temple Square, where the packages were distributed to the sisters. 

Sister missionaries help unload boxes of packages for the missionaries on Temple Square. Photo courtesy of Jerri-Ann Sturzenegger.

For some sisters, like Blakely’s companion, Sister Liu, the gifts were among the first Christmas presents they’d ever received. “It was amazing to see those sisters who’d never gotten a Christmas present before, just because their culture doesn’t celebrate Christmas,” Blakely said. Several missionaries sent video clips back to Jerri-Ann and the other project coordinators, thanking them for their service and kindness.

Liu, who grew up in Baoding, Hebei Province, China, doesn’t remember exactly what her package held, but she does remember feeling loved that Christmas. “We don’t really celebrate Christmas in China, so I didn’t get gifts from my parents, because we don’t do that,” she said. “I was really happy. I felt really loved. … I think all the sisters were really happy. [A gift] doesn't have to be something big, like a $50 gift card … just a little present just makes people really happy.”

Missionaries open Christmas packages donated by the Holiday Service Project in December 2017. Photo courtesy of Jerri-Ann Sturzenegger.

A bigger, better project

After the project’s first year, coordinators calculated that the amount of gifts and time given to the Holiday Service Project in December 2016 amounted to about “a nine- or ten-thousand-dollar project, which is great—and all that’s just donated,” Jerri-Ann said.

Then in July 2017, six months after the Holiday Service Project’s first run, Blakely had to return home from her mission for emergency medical treatment. Fortunately, the treatment was a success, and she was allowed to return to her mission on Temple Square only six weeks later. But Blakely realized that her mission would be extended beyond what she originally expected, and she would still be serving on Temple Square during Christmas in 2017. “We were like, well, let’s do [the project] again,” said Jerri-Ann.

During her recovery, Blakely and her mother worked together on preparations for the project. They selected new material for the drawstring bags and decided to ask volunteers to include one more item in every package. “We ask the donors of the bags to put in a self-addressed envelope so that the sisters can send them a thank-you letter,” said Jerri-Ann. “And that’s the fun part, when the donors get those letters back.” 

That Christmas season, “we had more people asking [to participate]—in fact, we had so many people that we ran out of bags,” Jerri-Ann said. They again successfully delivered all the packages to the mission home in Salt Lake City. “[Blakely] got home from her mission in March,” explained Jerri-Ann. “This year she gets to help us take all the bags back out, and so we’ve already started. It’s on Facebook now. We’ve already got people signing up, asking for bags.”

Blakely, now a senior at BYU–Hawaii, is excited to help out with the project and to continue serving the missionaries of Temple Square. “It was a really special experience,” she said. “I’m looking forward to being more involved and hands-on this year.”

Bags of gifts for Temple Square missionaries are printed with a design by Tom Sturzenegger. Photo courtesy of Jerri-Ann Sturzenegger.

The Holiday Service Project first delivered packages to missionaries in the Salt Lake City Temple Square Mission in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Jerri-Ann Sturzenegger.