Instead of shopping for Christmas gifts, more than 1,000 District 200 families in need last weekend picked out clothes, toys and other items that were donated through the Christmas Sharing program.
Christmas Sharing, a 501(C)3 organization founded in 1969 by a District 200 school social worker, provides families within District 200 with food, gently-used clothes and toys that local churches, businesses and schools collect.
Hundreds of volunteers worked last week and in the past few months to collect and organize donations to prepare eight Wheaton churches to resemble giant resale stores or pickup sites. Volunteer responsibilities ranged from collecting donations and packing food boxes, buying food and new toys, to translating for non-English-speaking families, driving for families that didn't have rides and arranging the churches so people can move in one direction.
The result was a well-oiled machine. Families with excited children picked out clothes, linens, home items and toys Friday and Saturday as smiling and tired volunteers were reminded of the reason for all of their hard work.
Each year, families receive letters that they can partake in the two-day shopping event after District 200 social workers determine who is eligible for the program, said Tanya Downing, volunteer coordinator for Christmas Sharing at First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton.
People's Resource Center (PRC) and World Relief are also part of the planning for the program, said Bob Donisch, co-chair of the Christmas Sharing steering committee.
Donisch said 1,500 families received letters this year. As of Thursday, 1,050 confirmed they’d attend, he said.
The program has grown each year since 1969. In the past five years, Donisch said, there has been a "dramatic increase" in families that qualify as demographics in DuPage County have shifted.
Last year, 1,104 families signed up for assistance, according to a District 200 press release, and in 2009, 947 families—4,275 people—benefitted from the program.
The volume of donations, however, fluctuates as the need grows. “People are less able to give,” Downing said.
Barbara Holmes, a volunteer at Gary United Methodist Church—the original Christmas Sharing site, said that while it's nice to be able to accommodate so many families, "it's sad that there's that need."
To help raise money and collect donations, District 200 schools run drives and programs each year. This year, Edison Middle School students donated $1 to wear pajamas to school on Fridays. Wheaton North High School students filled a truck with clothing donations.
Julie Nelligan, Christmas Sharing coordinator for Trinity Episcopal Church said every year, she has at least one tearjerker moment. This year, it was when she saw a letter from a family that thanked all of "Santa's helpers" at Trinity who made Christmas Sharing possible.
Neal Halleran, food coordinator for First Presbyterian Church said, "The look on their face when they leave—lots of looks of thanks and joy and appreciation... That's what it's all about."
Downing shared a thank-you letter from a woman whose family Christmas Sharing helped last year.
“You have no idea how treasured the attitudes and words of the staff of the sale were/are," the woman wrote, "In the situation we find ourselves in being treated with dignity and respect is pure gold.”