A volunteer sorts gift donations at United Lutheran Church for the Holiday gift Basket program in 2019. | Alex Rogals.

COVID-19 last year caused the Community of Congregations’ Holiday Food and Gift Basket program (HFGB) to truncate its traditional method of purchasing physical Christmas gifts for households in need and instead provide gift cards to Target instead. While the pandemic certainly isn’t over, the program this year feels a bit closer to normal.

“This year, we’re going back to gift cards to the Jewel for Thanksgiving and we are going back to gift-giving,” said program director Kelly Arquette.

This is Arquette’s first season as director, following former River Forest village trustee Patty Henek, who served as director for about a decade. Prior to becoming director, Arquette volunteered with the program as a sponsor. Sponsors sign up to purchase holiday gifts for participating households, which are then wrapped and delivered before Christmas by a team of volunteers. Last year, that did not happen.

“I wholeheartedly and fully support how it happened last year,” she said, “but I think it was a disappointment on a lot of levels.”

Not that the turnout itself was disappointing — 2,100 people benefitted from the program, 100 more than the year before. The disappointment came from being unable to take part in the shopping, wrapping and delivering gifts due to the highly infectious virus.

Now that vaccination is widely available, even to children as young as 5, sponsors can resume purchasing gifts, which has been a much-loved tradition for many, according to Arquette, and gives a sense of normalcy after a year and a half of extraordinary circumstances.

“I think people are really excited about it,” said Arquette. “It’s something that’s uplifting to do as a family.”

It is also special for the families who will have gifts to open come Christmas morning. About 700 households of limited means are expected to sign up with the program and so far, 570 have been entered into the program’s database. “Households” mean anything from a family of five to a single senior living alone, or one living with a pet.

While volunteers can sign up through the program’s website to sponsor a household or deliver gifts, social service organizations and social workers refer households in need to register to become recipients of the food and gift baskets.

Arquette recalled a recent interaction she had with one of those social workers who told her how much the program meant to her clients, but also to the social worker herself. She said her two favorite days of the year are the days when Thanksgiving gift cards and Christmas gifts are delivered.

“Their jobs are so tough when you see people so down and out and you see people struggling,” said Arquette. “It was the two days a year that she was confident that she knew she could make her clients happy.”

Serving as director of the program is a huge undertaking, requiring strong organizational skills and a firm handle on all the moving parts, which Arquette didn’t fully realize until stepping into the role herself. She credits longtime program volunteers Mary Jane Welter, Valerie Woods and Kathy De La Cruz, whom she calls her “angels,” for helping her understand and carry out the intricate processes of the program, such as matching sponsor families to households.

“Without them, I would be in a world of hurt,” she said.

With the major operations under control, Arquette has been able to incorporate new energy and fresh ideas into the already beloved, well-run tradition. This year’s Thanksgiving gift cards will come with special holiday cards, courtesy of Opportunity Knocks, a River Forest-based nonprofit that serves young adults with developmental disabilities, known by the organization as “warriors.”

The special holiday card features a handprint turned into a turkey surrounded by flowers and bordered with bright orange and red hues, designed by two Opportunity Knocks warriors, Karisa Reyna and Claire Puiszis, both of whom love making art. Reyna took care of the turkey and flowers, while Puiszis made the border.

Opportunity Knocks has sponsored families through HFGB before, but this is the first time the organization has been asked to create a card. When Arquette reached out to the nonprofit to gauge interest, it was an obvious yes for Opportunity Knocks Executive Director Mike Carmody.

“We love to showcase the abilities that not everyone gets to see [by] people we provide services to,” said Carmody, who added the organization would definitely do it again next year if asked.

After noticing HFGB had no logo, Arquette also reached out the Oak Park and River Forest High School Graphic Design Club. Senior Maeve Mascarenhas created two different logos — one that would be printed on HFGB stationery and a second that Arquette turned into stickers.

“I am grateful to Holiday Food and Gift Basket for giving the graphic design club the opportunity to work on this project,” said Mascarenhas, who also thanked her teacher Valerie White for helping in the design process.

Arquette is looking to engage more community organizations and individuals to bring fresh ideas and new enthusiasm to make HFGB even more special next year, while keeping longtime helpers on board. She hopes to make it representative of the different facets of the Oak Park and River Forest communities, and also expand the program to reach even more households.

This year, her goal is to keep things running smoothly and safely. As a high-risk individual herself, Arquette takes the threat of COVID-19 quite seriously. Nothing has been settled yet, but she is considering multiple strategies to deliver gifts safely, especially when it comes to senior living facilities.

“I take things to the extreme when it comes to COVID,” she said. “So we will have to figure some things out.”

For more information, please visit: communityofcongregations.org/holiday-food-gift-basket/.

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