Father Christmas and countless elves from Wheaton churches arrived early this year to save Christmas for more than 1,100 families in the Wheaton area.
The families gathered at over a dozen churches across Wheaton this weekend to participate in Christmas Sharing, a community-based program that provides food, clothing, toys and other gifts to families who need a little extra help during the holiday season. Christmas Sharing organizers collect goods to provide and create "stores" in local churches where the program participants, referred to as guests, can do go Christmas shopping.
On Dec. 9–10, program participants perused the aisles of tables holding heaps of gently-used clothing, electronics, toys and home goods, looking for items that fulfilled both needs and wants for loved ones this Christmas. Children laughed as they were allowed to fill a plastic shopping bag with toys to take home. There was a special room set aside in each church for parents only that was filled with new toys. Parents were able to select a toy to give to their children on Christmas morning.
At Aldersgate United Methodist Church, the Christmas Sharing volunteers set up a room for children to find a present to give their parents. Jeff Bray, who has been involved with Christmas Sharing for 15 years, said watching the children select something for their mother and father was exciting. He said the children "light up" knowing they can do something for their mom and dad.
"This is such a wonderful program that brings joy to both the guests in the program and to us who help set it up," said Tonya Downing, a member of First Presbyterian Church.
On Thursday, Dec. 8, Downing and other members at First Presbyterian loaded boxes of food for the guests and sorted clothing by size to make the shopping experience easier. Because the event lasted for two days, Downing said the volunteers made sure to not put everything out at once.
"We wanted to make sure there were enough items for both days as well as make sure there were an equal number of nice items available for the guests who shop on Saturday," Downing said.
The same was true at Gary Memorial United Methodist Church. Ken Hoppe said it's important to spread the items out so everyone has a chance to find something good. Hoppe said it's not always easy. He said sometimes the guests want to take more than they're supposed to, but most of the guests abide by the guidelines.
"Most of them are so grateful for the little bit they receive from the program. I was brought to tears last year by one man who only wanted two stuffed animals for his children. He didn't want anything for himself, he just wanted to make sure they had something for Christmas. This is what it's all about," Hoppe said. "It's worth it in the end to see the smiles on their faces."
Since September, Christmas Sharing volunteers have been planning, organizing and soliciting donations in preparation for Christmas. Bob Donisch, one of the organizers of Christmas Sharing, said a lot of work goes into the event, but said in the end it's all worth it.
"If we help some families have a good Christmas, especially in this economy, we're doing something right," Donisch said.
The items gathered by Christmas Sharing are provided by families in the school district, as well as other individuals, civic groups and local businesses. One of the businesses, Guest Supply, a hotel supply company based in Carol Stream, provided new linens, pillows and bed spreads to the guests. Donisch said Guest Supply joined with Christmas Sharing a few years ago and each year the amount they provide has increased exponentially.
"They are fantastic partners and we're blessed to have them team up with us," he said.
Christmas Sharing was created in 1969 at Gary Memorial when an elementary school teacher and a social worker sought to provide assistance to seven families at Christmas. Each year the number of families seeking assistance through the program has grown. More than 1,100 families participated in The Christmas Sharing program this year. The families signed up to participate in the program through Community Unit School District 200, which covers mostly Wheaton and Warrenville. The families apply to participate in the program through their children's schools.
The churches involved in Christmas sharing are Aldersgate, First Presbyterian, Gary Memorial, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, St. John Lutheran Church, Trinity Episcopal Church, Community Baptist Church, Blanchard Alliance, Immanuel Presbyterian, St. Irene Roman Catholic and Trinity Lutheran Church.
Many of the families who participate in Christmas Sharing are new to the United States. Donisch said those families were brought to the attention of the program by World Relief, a faith-based organization that assists refugee relocation to the United States. Donisch said many of the refugees are from Africa and are not used to the cold Chicago winters. He said the volunteers assist them with picking out adequate winter clothing and boots.
"We try to help them overcome a cultural and climatic shock," Donisch said.
About half of the families who signed up to participate in Christmas Sharing this year are first time participants. Donisch said the stagnant economy has increased the need of so many people in the area.
Sometimes those who received assistance from Christmas Sharing return not as a guest, but as a volunteer. Jim Whitlock, a member of Gary Memorial, said one of his fondest memories of his tenure working with Christmas Sharing were two women who were once guests, returning to volunteer.
"They received help and wanted to give back. It's such a reward to see something like that," Whitlock said.