Angie Seder goes through paperwork for the holiday food and gift basket program on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, at the River Forest Community Center on Madison Street. | Alex Rogals

The Holiday Food and Gift Basket program is in need of more sponsors to make the holidays merry and bright for those unable to afford the expenses of the season on their own. Roughly 150 individuals have yet to be paired up with sponsors this year.

“These are our neighbors that we’re helping,” said Angie Seder, the director of the longtime program. “Your donation is helping your neighbor.”

The Community of Congregations sponsors the project which is a twofold operation that provides food for Thanksgiving and gifts under the tree for many local households.

Individuals and families are referred for the program by social workers, social service agencies, schools and churches. Ninety percent of those referred live in Oak Park and River Forest, according to Seder, who became program director in September.

“People really look forward to this,” she said. “It’s part of making their Christmas happier for them and better for them.”

The number of people referred to the program continues to increase, requiring more funds and sponsors each year to satisfy the need. The program served 2,000 individuals last year. This year, that number grew by almost 300. Participants are grouped by household, which can be just one person or, in the largest household this year, 10 people.

Each household participating in the program receives a Jewel-Osco grocery store gift card with which they can purchase items for Thanksgiving dinner. The amount of each gift card depends on the number of people in that particular household, but a total of $35,000 in gift cards was dispersed through the program.

Angie Seder goes through paperwork for the holiday food and gift basket program on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, at the River Forest Community Center on Madison Street. | Alex Rogals

While that is no paltry sum, the program’s biggest endeavor each year is gift giving, which is where the sponsors come in. The participating households put together holiday wish lists. Those wish lists are given to the sponsors, who then purchase the items and wrap them. The gifts are then delivered to families ahead of Dec. 25 by volunteers, so that they can be opened under the tree on Christmas.

This maintains the magic of Santa for young children, while also providing such necessities as winter coats or bedding that the participating households could not otherwise afford. The privacy of the household is maintained throughout the process.

Many families sign up as sponsors each year, using the opportunity to bond with neighbors while sharing their good fortune. The Seder family has been a gift basket sponsor since they moved to River Forest 12 years ago.

 Local businesses and organizations also take up the mantel of sponsorship. Growing Community Media is sponsoring a family of seven this year. Oak Park and River Forest High School sponsors a large group of households annually. The Oak Park Women’s Guild, which is in the process of changing its name to represent the philanthropic group’s inclusivity, took in about 135 households.

Those sponsoring through the Women’s Guild are meeting at the home of the guild’s treasurer, Kim Garnett, on Dec. 4 to wrap gifts before delivery over mulled wine and Christmas cheer.  Garnett’s twin 15-year-olds have gotten into the sponsorship spirit, using their own money to buy gifts for people in need.

“My daughter was practically in tears just seeing that these people are asking for necessities as opposed to something entertaining or fun,” said Garnett.

If more sponsors don’t sign up, HFGB participants without sponsors won’t go without. Seder will have to dip into the program’s savings to purchase their items, but this isn’t a foolproof solution. Those savings make up the basis for next year’s Jewel-Osco’s gift card purchases, which will have to be recouped. This will put the program in a tighter fundraising position. Fundraising for the next year begins shortly after Christmas.

Seder, however, is hopeful that more sponsors will sign on. It is definitely not too late to sign up to be a sponsor nor is it too late to volunteer to deliver the packages. Both roles present opportunities for worthwhile service that often becomes a personal tradition.

“It’s really fulfilling to see how the community comes together, from the sponsors who donate or want to buy gifts for families,” said Seder. “But also, the people who continue year after year to volunteer.”

Want to help?

To sign up as a sponsor, please email HFGB Program Director Angie Seder at hfgbholidays@gmail.com. You can also sign up online at https://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0f49aaa629a5fbc16-hfgb. Happy sponsoring!

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