An early Christmas present for Hephzibah

YMCA donates Christmas tree, memberships to 26 kids at agency's group home

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By MARTY STEMPNIAK

For many families the act of buying a Christmas tree is an annual ritual - something that can be taken for granted after years of repetition. But for a small group of Oak Park children last week, picking up that pretty pine was magical.

On the afternoon of Thursday, Dec. 3, six kids from Hephzibah Children's Association went to choose a Christmas tree. The nonprofit's group home on North Boulevard is home to 26 children, ages 3-11. These are kids from across the state who have been placed in Hephzibah's care after suffering staggering abuse, neglect or family loss.

Coming from fractured homes, many of the children haven't experienced the joy of going out and picking a tree to put up for Christmas, or any other holiday traditions, said Mary Anne Brown, executive director for Hephzibah. This past Halloween, one little boy from the home had never dressed up for the holiday and asked, "Why does everyone ask what I'm going to be? I'm just a boy."

"All those things are what we remember growing up, and for our children, we have to give them those memories now," said Brown.

West Cook YMCA President and CEO Jan Pate wanted to increase her organization's efforts to help the less fortunate in the community. And along that line, the YMCA volunteered to donate a tree from its lot to Hephzibah.

The Y sells trees every year, and the proceeds go to Invest in Youth, their annual charitable support campaign. The $20,000 or so raised each year pays program fees and memberships at the Y for those who can't afford them.

The YMCA also donated 26 memberships to the children of Hephzibah's group home in September - which would cost almost $6,000 a year, at $228 for each child.

Pate, who was there to see the children choose a tree, said she could see the event becoming a yearly tradition.

"There's always something magical about being in that Christmas tree lot because it's really special when you see people picking out their tree," said Pate, who is also an Oak Park village trustee. "But when you see a group of children that never had a chance to buy a Christmas tree before, it was really heartwarming."

Six children and a few staffers from Hephzibah came to get the tree that Thursday, as the other 20 were occupied with school and other activities. Four of the six had never bought a real tree before. The group scampered around excitedly searching through the lot trying to find the right one. They kept one-upping their pick, asking for larger and larger trees.

"That's too little," one child said. "I want this one," another piped in. "Bigger," they kept repeating.

After five minutes or so of perusing, they settled on one of the tallest trees in the lot, a 10-foot-tall balsam. The kids received candy and ornaments for their new tree, which was tied on top of their van before they returned to Hephzibah a few blocks away at 946 North Blvd.

They originally planned to put the tree inside their home, but it proved to be too big. Instead, they placed it out front, right outside the children's living space.

"The kids bought the biggest one they could find, and they didn't want us to cut it," Brown said. "But there it is; it's very beautiful."

Hephzibah put lights up on the tree the day after setting it up. They're expecting to have volunteers come in this weekend to help decorate it. The children are also making ornaments, some with wishes for Santa and his elves.

As for the gifts that go under the tree, Hephzibah is holding its 23rd annual Bring-A-Gift-Party tonight at 7 p.m. at Doc Ryan's, 7432 Madison in Forest Park. For admission, attendees are asked to bring an unwrapped gift for a child 12 years old and younger, or a monetary donation.

Editor's note: Wednesday Journal is not publishing names or faces of children from Hephzibah's group home at the request of the organization.

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