Giving Back Can Be the Best Gift You'll Ever Get
Plugging in with local charitable groups provides a variety of ways to serve area residents in need, both during the holidays and throughout the year
When we think of holiday giving, we tend to think of all the gifts we need to give during the holidays: Family, friends, teachers, co-workers, hairdressers, babysitters, nursing home workers, personal trainers . . . the list gets longer every year.
But for many people in our area, holiday giving also means giving back. Giving back to those who are less fortunate, to those who cannot give, to those for whom the past year has not been kind, to those who society often overlooks.
The western suburbs offer a wide variety of opportunities to help those around us celebrate the season. We’re taking a look at some organizations in our area who go out of their way to brighten the holidays of their clients.
You might find that giving of yourself is the most valuable gift of all, for you and the recipient.
PROVIDING GIFTS AND HOPE: PILLARS
Pillars reaches out across the community to make sure that its clients are taken care of during the holidays. The organization serves nearly 10,000 people in suburban Cook County, eastern DuPage County, and Chicago by providing mental health and social services, and educational programs.
Pillars’ annual Gift Giving and Receiving program provides gifts and food for many of the families it serves, particularly local children and families living in the Constance Morris house, transitional housing or survivors of domestic abuse who live in the community. People can “adopt” a child or family and purchase clothes, toys, or other gifts. Businesses and organizations often set out boxes to collect toys for kids, younger and older. Many people and businesses donate gift cards for food and gas, as well as new or gently used coats, mittens or hats.
“We want to be able to give them additional food and gifts, things they need to help them celebrate, just like so many of us get to celebrate,” says Jackie Gibson of Pillars.
Diana Flores has been a client of Pillars for the past six years, working to rebuild her life after domestic abuse. She and her daughter have been grateful recipients of gifts, clothing and food during the holidays. Both received homemade fleece blankets one year, which are among their most cherished possessions.
She recalls the year her daughter opened a package containing a highly-desired doll, one that Flores knew she would never be able to buy. “Thinking that someone did this for us — it’s as if they were buying gifts for their own kids. I really felt they cared about us.”
Last year she received a set of pots and pans, something she didn’t have. “When I opened it up, I was so excited,” recalls Flores. “I jumped up and made breakfast right away. That was the best thing in the world to be able to do that.”
For anyone who has survived a difficult situation and had to start all over again, the outpouring of assistance at the holidays can be overwhelming.
“It’s an awesome feeling to know that (people who donate) don’t even know the people they’re helping, but they help anyway,” says Flores. “The fact that it doesn’t matter to them who we are or what happened to us. Sometimes I wish I could meet them and say thank you.”
708 995-3779, www.pillarscommunity.org
SHARING THE SPIRIT: PEOPLE’S RESOURCE CENTER
DuPage-based People’s Resource Center (PRC) helps over 9,000 families a year with food, clothing and rent assistance, and offers resources such as literacy classes, job assistance and computer training, among others. Helping people who have fallen on tough times is the backbone of the organization in any season, but particularly during the holidays. The organization offers a variety of programs to make the season a little merrier, including providing Thanksgiving and holiday meals from the food pantry and extra selections at the Clothes Closet.
The highlight of PRC’s holiday tradition is the Share the Spirit program. Supporters donate unwrapped gifts for children, and volunteers staff a “store” at the DuPage County Fairgrounds where parents can shop for their kids. All children receive a couple of toys, books, hats and mittens. This year, the group expects 1,000 families, one of the largest numbers ever.
Lyn Conway of Wheaton has been involved with PRC for 27 years and has seen the holiday program grow from a church-based Adopt-A-Family program to the store-like fairgrounds model.
“Before, all the gifts were wrapped and so moms and dads didn’t know what their kids were opening,” she recalls. “But now they get to come in and pick out the gifts, so on Christmas they know what their kids are getting. It really adds to the excitement and pride. Parents really put a lot of thought into what they choose for their children.”
Conway comes up from her winter home in Florida for the event, as do others who travel across states and take time off work to volunteer.
“It just does something to your heart, it’s a really awesome week, just a feel-good week,” she says. “Knowing you’ve had a very small part in helping someone have a happier Christmas, that’s a wonderful feeling.”
630 682-5402, www.peoplesrc.org
CELEBRATING DIFFERENCES: SPECIAL KIDS DAY
Over the course of 25 years, Special Kids Day has grown from a local event to an annual tradition that attracts 600 kids from across the western suburbs.
Founder Rich Rosenberg creates a holiday party designed specifically for children with special needs and their families. It features photos with Santa, crafts, homemade cookies, music, face painting and balloon blowers, as well as a quiet reading area. Families can drop in for as long as they like.
Rosenberg was inspired to start the event while photographing Santa at the mall. His wife, Barbara, had just started working as an aide to a boy with Cerebral Palsy, which is when Rosenberg realized that he wasn’t seeing any kids with special needs getting their picture taken with Santa.
“They wouldn’t and couldn’t come to any event that was crowded and loud,” explains Rosenberg. “Kids with autism or Down’s or using augmented devices — they just couldn’t come and get pictures. And so we decided to do something.”
The atmosphere at Special Kids Day is designed for kids for whom a regular holiday party is too overwhelming or technically challenging. There is no standing in long, hot, crowded lines to visit Santa, and a professional photographer will spend as long as the child and parent needs to get the right shot.
The event is open not only to kids with disabilities but individuals of all ages with special needs, as well as families and siblings. Rosenberg is especially sensitive to the struggles that siblings can have feeling left out or unable to participate in regular events, and he takes pains to include them in the event.
“When you start to realize the circumstances that (families of kids with disabilities) are dealing with, you realize that this is something that you’re doing for your whole community,” Rosenberg says. “The day reestablishes a connection with them in the community that they often don’t have.”
This year Special Kids Day, which is free, will be held Wednesday, Dec. 3, from 3:30 to 8 p.m. at the Wilder Mansion in Wilder Park, 211 Prospect Ave, Elmhurst.
www.specialkidsday.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.
HELPING THE HOMELESS: HESED HOUSE
The phrase “Home for the Holidays” can be a painful reminder for the homeless, and the folks at Hesed House in Aurora, the second largest shelter in Illinois, work hard to brighten the season for their clients.
Guests in the PADS program receive “Hesed Bucks” to shop at a holiday store for new items for themselves or family members. Several churches and community groups provide dinner on a nightly basis and often bring carolers, Christmas cookies, and holiday games. And families or groups can “adopt a family,” either in the community or in the transitional living program, and purchase gifts and clothing.
For the kids, the Harvesting Hope Christmas Party is often the highlight of the season. Harvesting Hope is a twice-weekly, play-therapy program run by volunteers for children staying at Hesed House. The party usually includes face painting, cookie decorating, games, and a Christmas craft. Volunteers run a variety of games. Santa and Mrs. Claus visit, read a story, and have their picture taken with the kids.
Kristen Rojas of Montgomery has been involved with Hesed House and Harvesting Hope for the past six years and helps organize the Christmas Party each year.
The joy of seeing the kids’ faces and happiness can be almost addicting, she says.
“Just being homeless isn’t the entire issue — leading up to that state, there is a lot of loss and trauma,” says Rojas. “But the kids are so happy to see you and have so much love to give. When I walk in, I’m bombarded with love and kids tackling me. And those kids have so much reason not to love, and they do. It sounds selfish, but it’s very rewarding.”
In a holiday-worthy twist, residents of Hesed’s Transitional Living Community turn the giving back. Each year they plan, decorate, prepare and serve a special meal for staff, board members and donors as a way of giving back to the community that has lent them a hand. In addition to sharing a meal, the residents also make small gifts for the guests, including hand-written thank you notes.
630 897-2156, www.hesedhouse.org
COMFORT AND JOY FOR FAMILIES: BRIDGE COMMUNITIES
Glen Ellyn-based Bridge Communities provides mentoring, housing and supportive services to help homeless families in DuPage County transition to self-sufficiency.
Families make a two-year commitment to the program and work to save money, learn budgeting skills and receive job counseling.
Bridge works particularly hard during the holidays to make sure that families receive a gift as well as clothing and food. And while their program is called “Adopt-a-Family,” Bridge collects gift cards or cash donations rather than actual items to allow parents to shop for their own children.
“We really feel that’s an important part of maintaining dignity,” says Resource Development Director Amy Van Polen.
Some volunteers go out of their way to help. Alicia Rasnic of Glen Ellyn has spent 10 years volunteering at Bridge Communities, doing everything from analyzing market research to stuffing envelopes. She soon realized that she wanted to make a difference for families during the holidays.
She started by donating cash at Thanksgiving to help families prepare a holiday meal. She did the same at Christmas, one time “adopting” a family with 10 children and providing enough gift cards so that every child would receive a nice gift that the parents picked out.
“You have to admire people that are going to give a two-year commitment to pull themselves up and tell people their darkest financial and lifestyle secrets,” Rasnic says. “My family is safe and comfortable. These families are now safe and trying to be comfortable, and if I can make their lives a little happier during the holidays, it means a lot.”
And the kids get a little cheer ahead of time, too. Bridge Builders, a group of local women who provide hands-on activities for families in the transitional housing program, throw a Holiday Party for families, mentors, and volunteers at the DuPage Children’s Museum.
During the event, Santa makes a visit and there are carolers and kid’s crafts. Each family receives a gift bag with a gas card and donated goodie — an ornament or children’s book. There is also a shopping area for kids to “shop” for their parents.
“It’s so fun to see the kids having a good time, running around looking at everything at the museum,” says Rasnic.
630 545-0610, www.bridgecommunities.org
SWEET TOUCHES: FAMILY SHELTER SERVICE
For families impacted by domestic violence, the holidays can be a painful reminder of what they don’t have. Family Shelter Service recognizes the deep need that its clients and children have for peace and joy during the holiday season and has come up with a number of ways to celebrate and bring light to the season.
This will be the third year for the Home Sweet Home event, which brings together the Family Shelter Service community and is open to all families, volunteers and guests. It features a breakfast buffet and holiday music. Costumed characters make the rounds and children can meet Santa and Mrs. Claus. Children decorate gingerbread houses, which are put on display and then taken home. Tickets are available to the public, and client families attend for free.
To lessen the burden and expectation of holiday gift-giving, FSS runs a Holiday Shoppe (this year on Dec. 15 and 16). Volunteers collect, sort, and set up shop at the Downers Grove facility and clients can shop for free for gifts, toys, gift cards and necessities.
“Oftentimes, these are the only gifts that these families will receive,” said Maureen McGuire of FSS, adding that hundreds of volunteers and staff work to display the donated items.
Community members, businesses and service groups reach out with donations for the Holiday Shoppe. Gifts are needed for a variety of groups: kids, teens and adults, male and female, Caucasian and Latino. “We also really welcome gift cards since clients can use them throughout the year for the items they have had to leave behind and for transportation needs,” says McGuire.
As a special honor this year, Family Shelter Service was asked to participate in the tree display at the Robert R. McCormick Museum at Cantigny Park. Clients in the organization’s art expression group will choose the theme and craft the decorations. Museum visitors can vote for their favorite tree and make a donation. The organization with the most votes will receive additional funds from the museum.
630 221-8290, www.familyshelterservice.org
EMBRACING THE SEASON: ASPIRE
Aspire has a long commitment to working with children and adults with developmental disabilities. And at the holidays, everyone pitches in to celebrate and have fun.
At the beginning of the season, individuals at Aspire head to “Santa’s Workshop” to make gifts, such as ornaments and picture frames for family and friends.
Aspire’s community homes are located throughout the western suburbs, and those homes are decorated inside and out during the holidays.
Each home has a set of traditions, including sending out a group holiday card taken at a local studio, and throwing a holiday party. Families are invited to the party, and everyone dresses up and enjoys dinner, dessert, and holiday music. Residents pass out their gifts made at Santa’s workshop.
Many residents form a choir within their home and then visit the other homes to sing carols.
Aspire CoffeeWorks kicks into full swing during the holidays. In 2009, Aspire partnered with Metropolis Coffee to create a program where adults in Aspire work alongside Metropolis employees roasting, grinding, packaging and shipping coffee.
All net proceeds go back to Aspire services and programs.
During the holidays, Aspire CoffeeWorks’ gift baskets sales nearly triple, according to Machaela Casey, Manager of Aspire CoffeeWorks, adding that they do a lot of custom gift baskets for corporate clients.
The gift baskets are a win-win for Aspire, providing additional hours and experience for Aspire workers as well as valuable proceeds for the organization.
Adults from Aspire who work at CoffeeWorks are paid employees and receive valuable job training, which allows them to build their resumé and experience and eventually find other jobs.
“Working at Aspire CoffeeWorks really gives them a sense of dignity,” says Casey. “They might not have jobs otherwise. Three out of four people with disabilities are unemployed.”
708 547-3550, www.aspirechicago.com
INTERESTED IN HELPING?
Here are some resources to check out. Keep in mind that many groups need help and donations early in the season, so don’t hesitate to reach out.
Giving DuPage is a clearinghouse matching organizations that need volunteers, donations or advocacy work with people who want to help.
Ways to help: Volunteer to decorate a community home. Bake cookies or treats for community homes. Purchase Aspire CoffeeWorks products. (www.aspirecoffeeworks.com.) Join Aspire Ambassadors or the Aspire Junior Board. For other volunteer opportunities, email@example.com.
Ways to help: Adopt a family for the holidays and purchase store gift cards for families to buy their own gifts. Donate gas cards and grocery gift cards. Consider donating a used car. Do a coin collection for laundry services—a typical family in transitional housing spends $40 a month on laundry operations.
Family Shelter Service
Ways to help: Sponsor, attend or volunteer for the Home Sweet Home event on Dec. 6. Donate toys, books and gift cards for the Holiday Shoppe. Shop at the Second Chance Resale Shops located in Naperville and Westmont. Vote for the Family Shelter Service tree at the Robert R. McCormick Museum at Cantigny Park and make
Ways to help: Purchase Christmas gifts for families in the transitional living community through the Adopt-A-Family program. Consider donating small gifts or baked goods to the Holiday Party. Check out the holiday wish list on the website for items needed at the Holiday Store. Consider putting together a Hesed Home Starter Kit, a package of household items given to someone starting completely over. The annual Christmas fundraiser to benefit Hesed House will be held on Dec. 13 at O’Malley’s Bar and Grill, 701 Hill Ave., Aurora, from 6-11 p.m. Tickets are $35.
People’s Resource Center
Ways to help: Donate for a Thanksgiving meal — $20 provides a family with a Thanksgiving meal. Provide a gift for a child in need. Volunteers and donations always welcome at food pantries and clothes closets in Wheaton and Westmont. Consider doing a toy drive or a hat and mitten drive. To volunteer at the Share the Spirit event in December at the DuPage County Fairgrounds, call the hotline at 630 682-5402 ext. 325. The group also holds two benefits in December: the Annual Women’s Holiday Luncheon on Wednesday, Dec. 3 at Meson Sabika in Naperville; and “A Celtic Christmas” holiday concert with Irish musician Gavin Coyle on Friday, Dec. 5 at the MAC at the College of DuPage.
Ways to help: Adopt a family or individual and purchase gifts and/or clothing from a wish list. (Donations needed by Dec. 12.) Set up a toy collection box at a place of business. Donate grocery gift cards. Donate new or gently used coats, hats and mittens. Shop at Hope Chest in LaGrange, an upscale resale shop that benefits Constance Morris House for domestic abuse survivors. Volunteer opportunities available at locations in LaGrange, Western Springs, Berwyn and Summit.
Special Kids Day
Wednesday, Dec. 3
3:30-8 p.m. Wilder Mansion, 211 Prospect Ave., Elmhurst
Ways to help: Bring someone who would enjoy the event. Free. No reservations, come when you can, stay as long as you want. Children of all ages welcome.
DuPage Senior Citizens Council
Ways to help: Volunteer as a driver for Meals on Wheels and deliver fresh, nutritious meals to homebound seniors. Volunteers also needed as kitchen assistants and home maintenance volunteers in May and November.