Santa Arrives by Minivan, SUV, Pick-Up and Squad Car

Cold weather can't dampen spirits as volunteers brought joy to Holiday Food and Gift Basket program recipients.

All is calm at at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.

It doesn't last long.

By 7:45 a.m., a steady stream of volunteers arrive in their vehicles, and they're prepared to deliver packages to nearly 1,000 households as part of this year's Holiday Food and Gift Basket Program.


"It's such a good thing that we can put up with the chaos. We'll survive," said a bemused Susan Stearns of River Forest.

But it's clearly an organized chaos.

Church pews usually reserved for worshippers were instead stuffed with hundreds of bags filled with wrapped presents. All of those bags were tagged and organized alpha-numerically, a result of the weeklong effort to sort donations.

Despite Saturday's bitter cold, the program's annual delivery day drew dozens of volunteer drivers who were sent to about 950 households throughout Oak Park and River Forest. This year's effort gave gifts to about 2,200 people, ranging from microwave ovens for the elderly to shiny new bikes for youngsters.

It's a perfect way to embrace the holiday season, said Tom Cofsky, a volunteer who came with his 15-year-old son Joey and 12-year-old daughter Jackie.

The family helped organize and bring gifts out to cars, and they'd later make a "special delivery" of their own to a family of seven that the Cofsky family "adopted" as part of the program.

"It's part of my fabric now, said Joey, an freshman who began volunteering as part of a service project for . "It's not a one-time thing. It's a forever thing."

Another volunteer, Oak Parker Lisa Smith, has delivered gifts to River Forest families for at least 10 years.

"It's a nice feeling to give and hear people say thank you," said Smith, who brought along her 17-year-old son Max and her 13-year-old daughter Sydney. "It's a feeling that we do the right thing, and it's all for a good cause."

A group of sixth-grade girls from partook in the warm feeling too, fueled in part by hot chocolate and donuts.

"This is what Christmas is supposed to be about," Santa Claus-hatted Morgan Hosty and Lia Flannery said, almost simultaneously. "It's to help kids less fortunate."

Some volunteers called Saturday's delivery event the best time of the year.

Take former Oak Parker Heather Gipson for example. For the past 15 years, the Wheaton resident has brought an array of packages to Mills Park Tower, which serves low-income, elderly and disabled individuals. Prior to that, she'd participated with her father.

Now, Gipson is raising a third-generation volunteer, her 4-year-old son Charlie.

"I love to see people come to the door," Gipson said, toting an ironing board out to her car. "Their smiles are wonderful. It makes it all worthwhile."

Shortly before 9 a.m., Christy Chapman and her daughters Kelly and Sarah were ready for load number two. They said their first delivery was a success.

"It was wonderful because I was cheering someone up," said Kelly, 11, a fifth grader at .

By about 9:15 a.m., the sanctuary had emptied about halfway. Roughly 45 minutes later, all of the gifts are out of the church and into the homes of needy families.

It's an effort that leaves program coordinator Patty Henek was in awe.

"Hearing the stories from both sides of it, recipients and deliverers alike and getting reactions from people, has made this so worthwhile," she said.

Donations are still welcome to help defray the costs of the food certificate program. Checks can be made out to the Holiday Food and Gift Basket and mailed to HFGB, P.O. Box 3365, Oak Park, IL 60303.


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