This Thanksgiving we’re all reinventing holiday traditions on a small scale. But COVID-19 with its need to avoid personal contacts such as delivering Christmas gifts to Oak Park and River Forest families in need, has turned the annual Holiday Food and Gift Basket program fully around.

And on a dime these volunteers have just about pulled it off.

In past years hundreds of families received a Thanksgiving gift card to Jewel and then in December a big black bag of gifts specially purchased and wrapped by villagers and local organizations and then delivered in a Saturday morning caravan by volunteers. Gifts were chosen based on a family’s wish list.

That plan required raising $50,000 for the Thanksgiving gift cards but relied on individuals to purchase the holiday gifts. This year, Patty Henek, the project’s long-time coordinator, set a goal to raise $150,000 which would be distributed to families in a one-time gift card from Target. The amount a family receives would vary based on the number of family members.

Henek, who doubles as a River Forest village trustee, says they “are very close to reaching that goal” and gift cards are currently being delivered either digitally or directly.

“This community always inspires me in their generosity and willingness to help,” said Henek. 

Since the 1970s, the Community of Congregation’s Holiday Food and Gift Basket program has provided Oak Park and River Forest households in need with holiday succor. Families and seniors are nominated to take part by school social workers, township senior coordinators and others.

The previous version of the program required a lot of different groups of people handling gifts and interacting closely with others — both of which are dangerous during the time of COVID-19. Henek decided last summer she would need to revamp the program this year to deliver holiday cheer to those in need without sacrificing the health and safety of anyone.

“I decided we just couldn’t do the gifts the same way,” said Henek. “On the other hand, I recognized that this year, maybe more than ever, there would be a need for this program.”

With the advice of social workers who work with households in the program, Henek decided to switch entirely to a gift card model — one gift card per household in an amount that included the Thanksgiving gift cards and what would typically be spent by sponsors on holiday gifts.

“My goal, since I wasn’t going to do the gifts, was to be able to raise money to still give participants the same value in gifts,” said Henek.

Last year, roughly 2,000 people benefited from the program. This year, over 2,100 people are taking part. 

Raising $150,000 during a pandemic is an ambitious goal.

Henek said she was unsure at the start whether previous sponsors would be in a position this year to donate, given COVID-19’s economic impact.

Recipients will receive a gift card to Target, which Henek chose due to its accessibility to participants, having a location in downtown Oak Park, as well as its multiple product offerings.

“You can get just about anything anybody would need — clothes, toys, household items, cleaning products, food,” said Henek.

With the help of social workers, recipients were able to choose between receiving a physical gift card or an electronic one sent to their email. Both are able to be used in stores and online.

Henek purchased $30,000 worth of gift cards through the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) of William Hatch Elementary School. 

From the purchase, Hatch will get back about $750 from Target, which they will use to help families in need throughout the school year, said Henek. 

Those who would like to contribute to the program can make donations through the Community of Congregations website or send a check to its post office box. The program has no donation cutoff date.

“I collect donations year-round if somebody wants to donate because it will just go into helping the next year,” said Henek.

While this year’s gift card plan certainly abides by COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, many volunteers, including Henek, feel saddened that they are unable to shop, wrap and help deliver gifts this December. Volunteering has become a beloved tradition for many families, schools and organizations.

“While of course they’re disappointed, they very much appreciate that we’re taking these precautions and still doing what we can to help these families,” said Henek.

She herself misses the camaraderie of working with the many volunteers, whom she’s gotten to know very well throughout the years. 

“The silver lining of it is we are still able to help how we can.” 

You can still help make the gift program a success this year. Donate online at the Communityofcongregations.org Or send a check to P.O. Box 3365, Oak Park, IL  60303

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