Sweet charity

Local volunteers spread holiday cheer

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By LAURA STUART and LINDA DOWNING MILLER

Growing weary of the annual getting and spending season? Take heart. In Oak Park and River Forest, avarice is not the holidays' whole story. Lots of peopleâ€"mostly unheralded volunteersâ€"toil each year to spread the wealth and make sure no one in our communities goes without.

We checked in with some of the oldest and largest local holiday charities as they wind up months of hard work. Their stories tell the larger story: good will really is busting out all over.

Holiday Food and Gift Basket Drive

Better known around town as "adopt a family," this venerable program begins serving families or individuals (particularly seniors) in need in November. Food gift certificates are mailed in time for Thanksgiving. In December, recipients are matched with "adopters" who get a wish list of needs and wants for each person. They purchase and wrap gifts, and drop them off for delivery. This year, a hamâ€"or a substitute if ham is prohibited by diet or religionâ€"also will be added to each holiday gift basket (actually large bags, since baskets are long outgrown).

More years ago than anyone can remember, Oak Park Township Youth Services came up with the idea for this program. They ran the gift portion for many years and the Community of Congregations, who also manage the local food pantry, handled the food. But four years ago, the Community of Congregations, with a grant from the township, took over the whole show.

"It had grown so much that [the township youth] staff was doing nothing but this for months. We work for less," says Janet Haisman, one of the program's seasonal coordinators.

The Community of Congregations sets up shop (rent free) at the River Forest Township offices in the River Forest Community Center in August, and works through the holidays. In addition to the small part-time staff, lots of volunteers pitch in.

"It's a tremendous amount of work, an amazing effort on the part of the communities," notes Haisman.

This year, about 780 family unitsâ€"roughly 1,050 adults and 860 childrenâ€"will receive gift bags. Almost 300 adopting units, including schools, churches, companies but mostly individual families, according to Haisman, have adopted all but a few individuals. Cash donations ensure that everyone gets something.

Except for a small number of families referred by local congregations, all of the recipients live in Oak Park or River Forest. "We have a lot of single moms, dads who've lost their jobs. You never know," says Haisman.

"These are people in our community. I like that. I feel a connection," says Jessica Roble-Cinelli of Oak Park. She, husband John Cinelli and daughter Gwen, 11, have adopted three people each year for the last 10 years.

"We got to the point where we looked around and didn't need more stuff. So we decided to help out," she explains. "Our daughter's grown up with it. It's great for her to do for someone else without wanting or expecting anything in return. That's the spirit of the season."

Lots of adopters are repeaters. Alberto Culver Company in Melrose Park, founded by River Forester Bernice Lavin, began participating years ago at the behest of current president Carol Bernick, also a resident of River Forest. They adopt over 70 individuals each yearâ€"this year it's 75â€"mostly seniors. The company gives an equal number of employees $60 each to purchase gifts, holds a wrapping party at work, and delivers the gifts to the Community of Congregations.

Other large contributors include Oak Park and River Forest High School ("They take tons," says Haisman) and Julian Middle School, among many others.

There's still time to help out, adds Haisman. Gifts will be dropped off at United Lutheran Church until tomorrow, and will be distributed on Dec. 18. Volunteers are needed to drive and deliver. It's a very organized process that ensures presents get to the right people; if you'd like to help, call 771-6159 ext. 244.

Jessica Mackinnon's family has been buying gifts and doing deliveries for the last 10 years. "Last year my boys [ages 8 and 11 then] came with me [to make deliveries]. At one apartment a little girl opened the door and she and my son greeted each other. They were in the same class. That prompted a big conversation, about privacy and also about the need right here in our community," she recalls.

"It's a wonderful program," says Roble-Cinelli. "I wish it wasn't necessary, but it's good to help in whatever way we can."

Hephzibah's giving trees

Hephzibah Children's Association finds that many people take a special interest in helping the child welfare organization around the holidays. In fact, to help handle inquiries, Hephzibah added a "holiday hotline" to its phone system last season. The message describes several ways in which callers can help, from plucking a child's wish from one of Hephzibah's "giving trees" to organizing a house or office party to collect gifts or donations.

For the past eight years, Whole Foods Market in River Forest has displayed a "giving tree" near the store's exit. Interested shoppers can choose a paper heart ornament, which lists a child's name and specific wish. The names are fictional, to protect the privacy of the children, but the wishes are real. They come from kids served by Hephzibah's group homes, family support services, foster care, and day care programs. Purchased gifts can be wrapped and returned to the store with the heart tags.

"We have little elves coming to pick them up," says Maureen McGoorty, Hephzibah's director of volunteer services. "Last year, we harvested 267 gifts from the tree."

This year, HobbyTown USA in Oak Park has a Hephzibah giving tree and is offering those shopping for Hephzibah a 10 percent discount on items.

Many "giving tree" requests are for what others might consider necessitiesâ€"boots and jeans, for example. When hearts become sparse, Hephzibah supplies more.

"We give gifts to hundreds of kids over Christmas," explains Rudi Vanderburg, Hephzibah's director of operations.

For 18 years, Hephzibah's annual "Bring a Gift" party has helped supply those gifts as well. This year's event took place on Dec. 8, at Healy's Westside Pub in Forest Park. Owner Mark Hosty traditionally opens his doors for the event and provides free hors d'oeuvres.

"We usually get close to 200 people," says McGoorty.

Attendees are asked to bring an unwrapped gift for a child 12 or younger. For the past six years, UPS has provided transportation for the toys from its Franklin Park hub station. Driver Mike Cardamone helped initiate this tradition after he and a fellow driver were given a Hephzibah tour, as part of a United Way campaign.

He and other UPS volunteers arrive at the party with the fanfare of a Forest Park police escort and a partial load of boxes of toys collected from a UPS employee drive for Hephzibah.

"We meet the Forest Park police at the police department there. I'm a friend of the deputy chief of police," Cardamone explains. "They give us two squad cars, and they blast their lights and sirens and stuff, and we pull up in front of the restaurant and unload all the gifts. I've got two boys of my own, and I just know how important it is for the kids to have something."

At the end of the party, "we fill two UPS trucks," McGoorty adds. "Last year, we got quite a haul."

Vanderburg noted that some toys are put aside for children's birthdays or other events at Hephzibah. A stuffed animal might be used to welcome a new arrival.

At Lincoln School in River Forest, the PTO has put out a "hat and mitten tree" for Hephzibah for more than 15 years, collecting warm, fuzzy gear for the children. A hot chocolate sale raises money for Hephzibah's holiday enrichment fund, which the organization uses to fill unmet needs.

Beyond donations, community volunteers help Hephzibah kids celebrate the holidays. Ron Fox, owner of Oak Park's Carlton Hotel, puts on an annual party for residents of Hephzibah's shelter. Fox funds the event and also plays Santa. The Berwyn Cicero chapter of VietNow has hosted a Christmas party for Hephzibah's kids for more than a dozen yearsâ€"a tradition for volunteers and many of the children in Hephzibah's residence. Hephzibah's hotline also recruits volunteers for its annual holiday party for foster care families, which includes licensed foster parents, children, and biological parents.

First United Church's Alternate Christmas Store

Joanne Despotes marks time, like many of us do, by the age of her child. "My son was in grammar school when we started the Alternative Christmas Store. He's 31 now," she says.

Despotes and Alyce Bode began the project 20 years ago at their church, First United Church of Oak Park. The congregation had been selling pecans at Christmastime to benefit Erie Neighborhood House and member Emory Mead was making and selling posters and cards to benefit the church's hunger fund.

The store evolved from those efforts. They decided to provide the opportunity for people to donate to the Church World Service, a relief organization formed by a partnership of churches that funds a number of self-help programs around the world. A donation might purchase blankets, seeds, school kits, even water buffalo for people in need. The donor gets a card: "This water buffalo [for example] has been donated in your name," it says.

"Our intent was a one-day thing," recalls Bode, a River Forest resident. "We had a captive audience on Sunday morning."

"That first Sunday we did $600. I thought that was the most we'd make, but every Sunday it got bigger. We did it again the second year, and we keep doing it," adds Despotes. The store is open before and after worship services for several Sundays before Christmas.

Over the years, they've added handicrafts to the sale. Some are made by self-help groups, with the funds going directly to the artisans who create the goods and their organizations. Sale items this year include hand-woven scarves, jackets, purses, pillow covers and place mats from Guatemala, and paper handmade by women at Deborah's Place, a local women's shelter. Church members also make things to sell, donating both the materials and their labor.

"All the money goes to other people, not the church," says Despotes. She and Bode estimate they raise between $5,600 and $6,500 a year for Church World Service, and about $8,000 a year in total. That comes to a 20-year total over $150,000.

"Alyce and I believe in this," explains Despotes. "It makes Christmas for me. We sit at a table and people hand us checks. It's a little more complicated than that, but basically people are saying, 'Here, give this to people who need it.' It's all about giving. You can't feel more Christmassy than that."

The Alternative Christmas store is open once more this season, on Sunday, Dec. 19 from 9:30 to 11 a.m. and 12 to 1 p.m. at First United Church, 848 Lake St. Call 386-5215 for more information.

The Christmas Cheer Foundation

Each year for 25 years, Oak Parker Kim Miller has been out of the house before dawn on Christmas morning. What's now evolved into a bona fide not-for-profit with a name, the Christmas Cheer Foundation, a board (Miller's on it) and even a website, started out as a simple idea: feeding the hungry on Christmas day.

"There was a doctor in Oak Park who was concerned with what happened to the elderly who got Meals on Wheels but never saw anything on Christmas day. So people began making meals and delivering them. We borrowed the kitchen at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church; people brought cooked turkeys and baked goods and the rest of us mashed potatoes and made vegetables. It just grew; I don't even know how it happened," she says.

Every year more names were added to the list, collected from social workers, agencies, schools. Once they served 7,000 meals, but in the last few years the demand has leveled off to about 4,500 meals, delivered to the "homebound and hungry" in 27 western suburbs and a small section of Chicago. About two-thirds of the recipients are children; everyone under 12 also gets a toy or a book.

The eight-member board meets once a month year-round. Miller estimates that "about 300 people are involved when all is said and done." The group has a strong contingent at St. Gertrude's in Franklin Park; along with storing the toys, they also do the gift wrapping.

Money raised goes to buy food and stamps. Donations and volunteers are still needed. For more information, call 383-0661 or see the website at www.christmascheer.org. They've gotten very savvy about getting books and toys through donations from companies like Follett and Wal-Mart.

When the demand outgrew the capacity of Good Shepherd's kitchen, the group moved its operation to the Priory in River Forest. When Dominican University took it over, "we were concerned," about losing the space, says Millerâ€"it's one of few places big enough to handle the operationâ€""but they've been marvelous. They say, 'Here's the keys. Good luck.'"

"Working with the Christmas Cheer Foundation is one small way that Dominican University gives meaning to its mission," comments Dominican President Donna Carroll. "I like to think that students and neighbors alike view the university's donation of the Priory campus as a staging area for Christmas Cheers' food preparation and distribution, not just as a generous gesture, but as a statement of who we are."

Instead of the hot meals that were possible when the numbers were smaller, they've switched to cold food: ham, potato salad, tossed salad, juice, a roll, two pieces of fruit and a sweet for each diner.

Some volunteers gather on Christmas Eve to get things collected and organized, and others show up on Christmas morning at 6 a.m. to assemble the food. A third group begins making the 2,000 or so deliveries around 8:30 a.m.

Oak Parker Barbara Furlong and her husband Bill were longtime volunteers, taking the early morning shift. When Bill died a year ago, son Matthew went with his mother to continue the tradition.

"It's fun to get up that early. You might see Santa Claus," kids Furlong, adding, "Bill and I were blessed in our life, and we felt we owed something to society. This is something we could do."

"There's nothing better than giving to someone less fortunate," adds Miller. "I'm happy to know people are shown kindness on Christmas morning."

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