A regular donor to the Holiday Food and Gift Basket project, one local grandmother laments necessary changes forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to a program she has long shared with her grandkids.

Patty Henek, who has run the annual event for 10 years, says the pivot away from gifts and exclusively to gift cards “is hard for a lot of people, because gifts would have been such a nice treat this year especially. One sponsor who always reached out so generously every year was disappointed in the change, because she loves working with her grandkids to shop for gifts and wrap presents.”

For decades, the Holiday Food and Gift Basket (HFGB) has provided Thanksgiving food gift cards and then holiday gifts to low income families, seniors and adult singles in the Oak Park and River Forest communities.

During a typical season, many volunteers work together during different steps of the program but this year safety is a concern. The COVID pandemic has forced HFGB organizers to pivot, changing the way they deliver these valuable services to those in need. 

To eliminate as much physical contact as possible, HFBG has made the decision to provide families with a one-time gift of a Target gift card rather than a food gift card in November and gifts in December.

HFGB, run under the auspices of the Community of Congregations since 2001, receives referrals for people in need from Oak Park and River Forest Township, local public schools, churches and social service organizations. Hundreds of sponsors in the community purchase gifts and donate money, and volunteers lend their time to organize and deliver gifts.

But according to Henek, also a River Forest village trustee, this year organizers knew they needed to change the whole approach.

For a lot of donors and volunteers, including those who distribute the gifts to recipients, it’s been a tradition and a big part of the holiday season, said Henek.

In some years, said Henek, sponsors didn’t want to buy gift cards or donate cash; they enjoyed the process of going out and shopping for someone based on age and preferences provided. Wrapping and dropping off the gift was part of the holiday season. But she’s hoping sponsors will rethink and donate cash instead.

This year there is the challenge of a greater need for HFGB’s services, paired with the possibility that past supporters might not be able to donate as much in previous years, since tough economic times have impacted so many.

Henek has a big goal for cash donations, which HFGB will use to purchase Target gift cards: $100,000. She intends to raise it by the beginning of November. The goal is to provide families in need with the same monetary value that they’d get in any other year, which is typically $50 per person. With approximately 2,000 recipients, that’s $100,000.

Henek said they chose Target because the store offers a variety of products, from food to clothing to household items. Having a small Target in Oak Park makes it accessible to local recipients as well.

“We’ll reach out to the same organizations that have supported us in the past,” said Henek, the list including churches, schools and other groups.

“The work will be spreading the word as broadly as possible that we’re looking for cash donations instead of gifts this year,” said Henek. 

To take safety even further, most of the Target gift cards will be delivered electronically to the families and individuals receiving them, eliminating the need for physical contact. Some seniors or individuals might require a physical card, though, and HFGB will make exceptions for those people too.

Here’s how to donate

For more information or to donate, visit communityofcongregations.org/holiday-food-gift-basket.

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