By Rosie Powers
As the holiday season rolls around again, with it comes the annual Holiday Food and Gift Basket Program, which brings the "season of giving" to struggling households throughout the community.
The program started in 1970s in collaboration with the Hunger Task Force. But in 2009, the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry decided to go independent of the Task Force, which gradually reduced — and eventually ended — its $24,000 contribution to the program.
As a result, the Holiday Food and Gift Basket Program has had to expand its fundraising efforts.
Patty Henek, coordinator for the program, said she has begun partnering with local organizations in an effort to raise awareness and generate more support for the program. So far, she has worked with organizations such as Newcomers and Neighbors, 10,000 Villages, the Neighborhood Giving Project and Juice Joint.
"So much of it is reaching supporters at the right moment," she said. "Any bit helps — all the little checks add up."
Additionally, Henek said this year an anonymous donor has volunteered to match any new church donations raised up to $1,000, so the program has tried to connect with new churches in the greater Oak Park area.
"Once you let people know the need is there, they're willing to help out," she said.
But Henek also stressed the importance of maintaining sponsors who have been involved with the program for several years, such as Diane Maciejewski of Oak Park. Like many sponsors,
Maciejewski primarily sponsored individual families in her first few years with the program. However, one year she registered late and was paired with a senior, which inspired her to continue sponsoring seniors for the next three years.
"It became obvious how isolated seniors are," Maciejewski said. "Sometimes I feel like they're the forgotten part of society, so they soon became my passion."
Henek, a River Forest resident, was also a sponsor for several years before becoming the program's coordinator. In addition, she is heavily involved with other local charities, including her block's annual LemonAid fundraiser.
The Food and Gift Basket program averages donations for about 950 households per year, or 2,200 individuals in the greater Oak Park area.
Local social workers determine which individuals, seniors and families qualify for the program. Food cards are then distributed to participants the second week of November, while the program matches sponsors with families who shop for them. Henek said the program has raised $18,223.11 of its $30,000 goal for food cards to date.
"Recipients are generally a mix of folks who have qualified repeatedly, such as seniors because they're on a fixed income," Henek said. "But we also always have some new families as well."
Recipients submit a "wish list" of things they ask donors for, separated into "wants" — such as toys and small electronics — and "needs," the necessities of daily life. Each donor must give a minimum $50 worth of goods. However, Henek said many sponsors exceed that figure.
Sponsors can sign up for more than one individual or one family; Henek noted that some classrooms from Oak Park and River Forest High School and area grade schools have taken on a few recipients as well.
"It's planting the seed at a very early age," Henek said. "The kids are seeing what it's all about."
Although donations given to participants remain anonymous, volunteers such as Tom Cofsky of Oak Park help deliver the gifts face-to-face to recipients. Cofsky said volunteers do not deliver their own donations in order to preserve anonymity.
"That's the part that really hits home," Cofsky said. "We've delivered a number of bikes to families with little kids, and it really brings back memories of the holidays as a little kid. It's a smile that lasts a long time in your memory."
The first day for donation drop-offs this year is Dec. 1, but the program will continue taking donations until Dec. 6. Items will be collected at United Lutheran Church, 409 Greenfield in Oak Park. Henek said donations can also be sent to: HFGB, P.O. Box 3365, Oak Park, IL 60303.
"Although this sort of thing should be year-round, it's a good time to take time out of our lives for someone else," Maciejewski said.
More information about the drive can be found by visiting Community of Congregations' website at www.communityofcongregations.org/hfgb.html, calling 708-771-6159 x244, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The amount of money raised for food cards - $18,223.11 - has been updated from this article's original version to match the program's to-date funding amount.