It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the song goes, but it’s also the most expensive. For many who have fallen on hard times, financial anxiety can overshadow the happiness holidays bring.
Since the 1970s, the Holiday Food and Gift Basket Program has made the holidays merry and bright for low-income households in Oak Park and River Forest, as well as some in neighboring Chicago areas.
“This year, we had 720 households, which is a mix of individuals or families. It’s just under 2,000 total people,” said Patty Henek, who has coordinated the program under the Community of Congregation for the past nine Christmases.
“There’s a whole mix of reasons why a family might qualify for the program,” Henek said. “There are some folks, maybe medical bills have put them in this situation and this is why they’re struggling. Maybe somebody lost a job.”
By providing grocery store gift cards for Thanksgiving and wrapped gifts for Christmas, the program helps families and individuals enjoy the holidays less encumbered.
“The recipients get referred to the program through a social worker or a case worker, either through the local schools in the two townships or one of the social service agencies,” said Henek.
The social service agencies include, Hephzibah Children’s Association, Thrive Counseling Center, Thresholds, Sarah’s Inn, Housing Forward and others.
“In all I think there are about 30 different organizations,” she said. Churches also refer families.
Many individual program recipients live in the Oaks Senior and Disabled Apartments, Mills Park Tower, Ryan Farrelly Apartments and Heritage House.
Donations are solicited throughout the year to cover the cost of the Thanksgiving gift cards. The program distributes about $30,000 worth of gift cards each year.
Henek also enlists sponsors for the Christmas gift drive. Sponsors sign up to purchase presents for the referred households.
“They can either choose one person because we have a lot of adult singles and seniors who might be on their own, or they can take a family,” she said.
Families have two or members. Some families in the program have up to 15 members. Each individual or family fills out a wish list, usually a mix of wants and needs.
“Some, especially some of the seniors, will ask for basic paper towels, cleaning supplies, stamps, things like that,” Henek said.
The program suggests sponsors spend around $50 per person.
The number of sponsors participating in the program is hard to determine. Henek has about 300 names entered in the database, but schools and churches that sign up to sponsors families are entered under the liaison’s name.
Sponsors dropped off black trash bags full of new and wrapped gifts at United Lutheran Church the week of Dec. 9. Henek and other volunteers spent a total of 15 hours collecting and sorting the donations, which filled every pew in the sanctuary.
One couple spent their 30th wedding anniversary organizing donations at United Lutheran.
Coordinated by the school’s Service Club, Percy Julian Middle School sponsored 50 households. The donation bounty from Julian took two school bus trips to deliver. One student even brought in a bicycle. Service Club students came to United Lutheran to help organize the bags.
“I didn’t even sleep last night because I was just so excited,” said seventh-grader Fhaysia Matthews. This is Matthews’ second year in Service Club.
“This is a passion for me because I actually have kind of been in this position where things have gotten hard and parents have lost jobs,” she said. “It just makes my heart feel way better when I’m helping somebody else. I have a passion for helping the homeless and less fortunate.”
Last winter, in her spare time, Matthews assembled about 100 packages of food and toiletries that she and her parents distributed to homeless people around the expressway.
“Everybody has been in a bad space at one point. If you’re in a bad space, you should talk to somebody,” she said. “There will always be one person, or more, there to help you out.”
Matthews hopes to one day be the CEO of her own company, which she envisions as a place where everyone feels welcome.
Eighth-grader Taurus Hayes has been in Service Club his whole time in middle school.
“I see the less fortunate around, mostly at the McDonald’s near Julian, and when you come out, they ask you for your change. That’s what made me go to Service Club,” Hayes said.
Without taking any breaks, Hayes quietly unloaded bags and bags of donations from the bus and brought them into the church. He then carefully deposited the bags, based on their alphanumeric label, among the pews.
“I feel pretty happy,” Hayes said, seeing all the gifts at the church. “Because now I know that more people are actually getting presents.”
A school-wide effort, Oak Park and River Forest High School also sponsored 50 households.
“We actually had more people who wanted to adopt than there were families available this year, so that was awesome,” said OPRF Outreach Coordinator Latonia Jackson. “Some of them teamed up with others who adopted and made toiletry bags and things like that. They wanted to give, and they found a way.”
OPRF students started asking about the program as soon the school year started.
“Before I could even announce it, they were asking me, ‘Are we adopting families this year? We want in,'” Jackson said.
She has been volunteering with the Holiday Food and Gift Basket Program for 20 years, getting families connected to classes and bringing in the donated gifts. Five years ago, Jackson also started coordinating referrals.
“I’ve been working with the same ladies from the Holiday Food and Gift Basket program the entire time. They volunteer their time almost all year because it’s not over after we deLiver the gifts,” she said. “I think about their time, their generosity and how generous this community is as a whole. It makes my heart feel good.”
Jackson hopes OPRF will sponsor even more households next year.
Sponsoring families and organizing donations aren’t the only ways to get involved —
the gifts also have to be delivered.
One woman started delivering gifts when she was 16 to Mills Park Tower. She and her father did it every year together. After her father’s death, she continued the tradition and now delivers them with her son.
“I have another family that takes all the gifts to the Oaks and Farrelly and they spend the whole morning there with the seniors,” Henek said. “They bring baked goods and drinks and they just make a whole event out of it. They’ve been doing that for years.”
A troupe of Cub Scouts delivered all the gifts going to Heritage House this year.
The program welcomes any person in the community who wants to help in whatever way they can.
“I’ve had recipients who have come to volunteer as their way of giving back. It’s such a win-win and such a feel-good-all-around with this program,” Henek said. “Even for people who maybe can’t afford to sponsor, they come to deliver gifts. I love the community involvement.”
The program is bittersweet for Henek.
“We have an interesting community in that there are a lot of needs, but yet we’re in a situation that there are a lot of people who are in a position to help,” she said.
“Mostly what I find is that you just need to let people know the need is there and how they can help, and they’re more than happy to do it,” she said. “I’m always amazed at the generosity of our community.”
The recipients are very appreciative for the help they’ve received through the program, writing and sending very heartfelt thank-you notes to the sponsors and volunteers.
The program is a well-oiled machine operated entirely by volunteers, who go out of their way.
As Jackson said, “Santa has nothing on the Holiday Food and Gift Basket Program.”