It is only early October, but already Marcia Alpert has 150 applications in hand for the Holiday Food and Gift Basket program. And, she says, half of those being referred so far are new applicants. Welcome to the hometown reality of a very tough year.

This program, which dates to the early 1970s, provides food and holiday gifts for low-income families, singles and the elderly across Oak Park and River Forest. Last year this grassroots effort brought holiday cheer to nearly 900 families. This year, Alpert, one of three lead organizers, anticipates that number rising, perhaps substantially.

Families and individuals are “referred” to the program by a range of local social service providers including Oak Park Township, school counselors and churches. While there will be no shortage of recipients, the organizers immediate concern is finding enough donors to fund both the supermarket gift cards which are distributed and to shop for the gifts which make this program so remarkably personal.

Who steps up to “adopt” families? A wonderfully wide range of individuals, companies, schools, churches and families, says Alpert. “The [OPRF] high school sponsors a lot of families,” she said. “This is such an incredible community effort.”

Alpert said those that sponsor a family, single person or senior are given a “wish list” for their holiday shopping. That list identifies recipients by age and gender and includes specific gift ideas and requests.

The program is administered by the Community of Congregations – an interfaith organization – which supports local efforts to help the homeless and hungry.

This year is the second year the program is being coordinated by the same three women: Alpert of Oak Park; Mary Jane Welter of River Forest and Valerie Woods of River Forest.

Welter has been volunteering for five years. “We also do ask for volunteers to address envelopes, organize gifts and work on delivery,” she said.

“We are always seeking volunteers for the week of Dec. 5 to 12.”

Those interested in the program as a sponsor or recipient can go to the Web site of the Oak Park Food Pantry at

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