The Holiday Food and Gift Basket program is not just a program for the needy. One of its greatest virtues is providing folks in the community the feel good opportunity to do the giving year after year.

Marissa Merz, first grade teacher at Holmes School, 508 N. Kenilworth Ave., recalls shopping for other children 15 years ago with her Girl Scout troop.

“There’s that excitement of knowing that someone’s holiday would be happier and we are reflecting that feeling,” Merz said.

In addition to the gift basket program, Merz also participated in similar programs from her high school years and at her Chicago church. “For the importance of a kid, it just opens your eyes to other people in the community that aren’t as fortunate,” she said. “It really feels good to help someone.”

Julie Bernstein, a kindergarten teacher at Holmes for 14 years, has been giving with either her family or with Holmes for 20 years. Bernstein said the staff usually sponsors a large family, two adults and four or five children.

While trying to fulfill the wishes of the family’s children, Bernstein said staff also buys them books, even if they are not on the list. However, they still try for a good mix of gifts, including clothes and toys as well.

“You’re happy that you can provide something to the people who may not get a gift,” she said. “I get them something nice because it may be their only thing.”

Before teaching at Holmes, Bernstein’s family regularly sponsored families, finding a couple of kids for her own children to shop for.

“I remember one year a family had a son close to the age of our son,” she said. “We were able to pick out cars and trucks and other things we knew he would like. It was worth doing. It’s a great program for the community,” she said.

Terry Grace, social worker at Holmes, adds 31 years of involvement in the program. He has coordinated giving programs at every school he has been with. Those schools have included Mann, Hatch and Whittier.

Grace has seen the program more than double during those 31 years, from 400 to over 900 local families in need.

However, the giving usually keeps up with those receiving.

“The people who do adopt a family are very generous and do a fantastic job,” Grace said. “There’s a great willingness historically in Oak Park to put out considerable money to sponsor a family. It’s not unusual for someone sponsoring a family to put out $300 to $500 per family.”

In addition to the Holmes community giving, about 15 to 20 families of students are sponsored through the program as well, according to Grace.

As the school’s social worker, Grace refers those families if they would like to be sponsored through the program. While Grace takes on a lot of additional work to coordinate the program with Holmes, he says it pays off.

“It is challenging to do this, but it’s worth it,” he said. “It’s really too significant to not do the best job you can.”

“It literally makes their holiday season,” he said of those sponsored.

According to Valerie Woods, co-coordinator of the gift basket program, about 1,050 children under age 17 have been referred out of more than 990 families. The program is still looking for sponsors for some of those children.

Individuals or families looking to learn more about sponsoring an individual or family can contact the Holiday Food and Gift Basket at or 708-771-6159 x244, ring seven times for voice mail if nobody is in the office.

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