ST. CHARLES – Volunteers were hustling through the Salvation Army Tri-City Corps in St. Charles Saturday, as more than 600 families were expected for its annual Christmas food, winter coat, toy and book distribution, an all-day event.
The parking lot was packed, clients were lined up according to their scheduled times. Though the center was bustling with activity, it was quiet and orderly as each guest was shepherded along by a volunteer with a clipboard.
"We get them signed up and an appointment time, so everyone has slots so they're not waiting all day," said Angel Ayala, office administrator for the Salvation Army in St. Charles.
Organization is the key, she said, as staff and volunteers start meeting in September for the Christmas distribution.
"Lots of planning, lots of volunteers," Ayala said.
New toys were everywhere, organized according to age and gender with Elmo and Super Grover for small children, plastic trucks for boys and makeup kits for teen girls.
Among the volunteers was Jim Womac of Elgin, who was in charge of sorting the books and helping people get a book in the right age group.
"I deal with a lot of disadvantaged people that I work with [at] the Salvation Army," Womac said. "And this is an extension of that in mind, in helping those who are less fortunate."
In another area, volunteers Randolph and Bari Behnken of St. Charles were folding clothes and helping clients pick out the right sizes for their needs.
"I'm trying to just generally greet people and be helpful to them – and wish them Merry Christmas," Randolph Behnken said. "As a believer in Jesus, I just feel this is what I need to be doing and I'm glad to be helping our community."
Bari Behnken said they were new to St. Charles, having just moved back to Illinois after 43 years in Kentucky, and wanted to be involved in the community.
"We were involved in many ways in Kentucky and we are just discovering ways in St. Charles," Bari Behnken said. "We are thrilled that the Salvation Army offers so many avenues of volunteering."
Among the donated items that so impressed Bari Behnken are hand-made sweaters.
"I'm a knitter so I know … somebody has been really sweet with their knitting hours," she said.
New coats are an important part of the Salvation Army's distribution, Ayala said, which are sponsored by the St. Charles Breakfast Rotary.
Major Mary Hammerly, the toy shop coordinator, said the area is laid out like a store, marked for age and gender appropriateness. Each child gets two brand-new toys and a new coat, she said. And each family gets a new game, something everyone can play.
"When our guests come, they just are so pleased and happy to see what's here," Hammerly said. "In fact, a lady asked specifically if we had a Dora [the Explorer] stove for her little girl. And I was able to give her one and she was so excited."
Many times clients ask for something specific, and Hammerly said they often have it because the community has been so generous in providing the toys.
"There are circumstances that we don't know," Hammerly said. "In listening to stories, many are laid off and people who supported us in the past are in here now, shopping. Some of it is because of circumstances, like a death. The reason does not matter. It matters that we can help them."