Time is running short. The danger is growing that in this difficult year some families and seniors will remain unsponsored in the annual Holiday Food and Gift Basket program. With more local people referred to the program than ever before, organizers are seeing a worrisome gap.

“We are concerned. But we are hopeful,” said Valerie Woods, one of three volunteer co-chairs of the program. “Sponsors have come in more slowly than in past years,” she said.

As of Monday, the tote board listed 965 local singles, seniors and families who have been “referred” to the program by local social services. That’s an increase of 75 from just a year ago. With new sponsors recorded from over the weekend, 180 individuals or families still need to be sponsored.

There is still time, says Woods, for your family, business, church or group to sign up as a sponsor. “People would just have to shop fast,” said Woods. (See sidebar for information on how to sign up.)

This year isn’t the first time that the needs of local families have increased dramatically. When the program was started in the 1970s by the Community of Congregations, there were just 50 kids being sponsored, said John Williams, director of youth services for Oak Park Township. “People donating said, ‘We want to do something for the mom and dad, and senior citizens,'” Williams said. “And it kept growing like that.”

Eventually the effort was transferred to the township. When Williams came to the township in 1994, about 230 families were being sponsored. The township tracked the families and the sponsors, coordinated the collection and delivery of gifts and food.

However, the need kept increasing and the coordinating effort consumed more weeks and months from the township’s busy schedule. Williams recalls storage rooms stacked from the ground-up with documents from the program.

“A cost analysis said it would be more efficient to contract the program back to the Community of Congregations and give them the computer and ask them to run the program,” Williams said. “It seemed like a win all the way around.”

Williams praised the current trio of volunteer coordinators – Marcia Alpert, Mary Jane Welters and Valerie Woods – saying they’ve managed to keep meeting a swelling demand.

“They are just phenomenal. It’s been a very good partnership,” he said.

Williams said the program has been more efficient since the turnover in 2003.

“This time it’s a challenge for people economically and people are still stepping up,” he said. “They still need sponsors and every year people step up and take care of things. It’s amazing.”

David Boulanger, Oak Park Township supervisor, said the Community of Congregations receives a small annual grant from the township. “As you can imagine, organizing 800 families, it’s quite a task,” he said. “We provide them with $7,000 to $10,000 to cover administrative needs and software.”

Boulanger has been an active sponsor/gift shopper for the program for three years. This year, he said, he is providing for a family, a senior citizen and a single person.

“As the need has grown, I felt like I should do my part too,” he said.

How to help

  • Adopt a family, a single person or senior citizen by Dec. 5.
  • According to Marcia Alpert, there is a very strong need for people to sponsor singles and seniors.
  • For some referrals, they only ask for a gift card.
  • Contact the Holiday Food and Gift Basket at holidaybasket@hotmail.com or 708-771-6159 x244 (ring seven times for voice mail if nobody is in the office).

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