The holiday food and gift basket program needs more sponsors to make the holidays happy and bright for those who can’t afford the expense of the season on their own. Approximately 150 people have yet to be matched with sponsors this year.
“It’s our neighbors we’re helping,” said longtime program director Angie Seder. “Your donation helps your neighbor.”
The Community of Congregations sponsors the project which is a dual operation that provides Thanksgiving food and gifts under the tree to many local households.
Individuals and families are referred to 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 are really looking 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 grow, requiring more funds and sponsors each year to meet the needs. The program served 2,000 people last year. This year, that number has increased to almost 300. Participants are grouped by household, which can be one person or, in the largest household this year, 10 people.
Each household participating in the program receives a Jewel-Osco Grocery Gift Card with which to purchase Thanksgiving dinner items. 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 given out through the program.
While not a pittance, the program’s biggest effort each year is gift giving, where sponsors come in. Participating households made holiday wish lists. These wish lists are given to sponsors, who then purchase the items and package them. The gifts are then delivered to the families before December 25 by volunteers, so that they can be opened under the Christmas tree.
This maintains the magic of Santa Claus for young children, while providing necessities like winter coats or bedding that participating households could not otherwise afford. The privacy of the household is preserved throughout the process.
Many families sign up as sponsors each year, taking the opportunity to bond with neighbors while sharing their good fortune. The Seder family has been sponsoring gift baskets since moving to River Forest 12 years ago.
Local businesses and organizations are also taking over sponsorship. Growing Community Media is sponsoring a family of seven this year. Oak Park and River Forest High School sponsor a large group of households each year. The Women’s Guild of Oak Park, which is changing its name to represent the inclusiveness of the philanthropic group, hosted about 135 households.
Those who sponsor through the Women’s Guild gather at the home of the guild’s treasurer, Kim Garnett, on December 4 to wrap gifts before delivery over mulled wine and Christmas cheer. Garnett’s 15-year-old twins got into the spirit of sponsorship, using their own money to buy gifts for those in need.
“My daughter was practically in tears just seeing these people asking for necessities rather than something entertaining or fun,” Garnett said.
If more sponsors do not register, HFGB participants without sponsors will not be without. Seder will have to dip into the program’s savings to purchase his items, but that’s not a foolproof solution. These savings form the basis for next year’s Jewel-Osco gift card purchases, which will need to be redeemed. This will put the program in a tighter fundraising position. Fundraising for next year begins shortly after Christmas.
Seder, however, hopes more sponsors will join him. It’s certainly not too late to sign up as a sponsor or too late to volunteer to deliver the packages. Both roles present valuable service opportunities that often become a personal tradition.
“It’s really rewarding to see how the community comes together, sponsors donating or wanting to buy gifts for families,” Seder said. “But also, people who continue year after year to volunteer.”
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