The clients of Between Friends, a Sugar Grove food pantry, came for their Christmas dinners – and many were pleasantly surprised to find they also could choose new toys and books for their children in a Secret Santa Shop.
This was the second year Between Friends teamed up with other charitable efforts during the holidays to support those who need some extra help at Christmas, said Melisa Taylor of Sugar Grove.
Taylor, a Kane County board member, runs the Between Friends pantry that serves the Kaneland area.
“It was a huge success last year,” Taylor said. “They took all the toys and books they collected ... and if they brought their children to the pantry with them, we distracted the children so Mom could do a little Christmas shopping. They carried things out in black garbage bags with the food so the kids won’t see.”
Taylor – like many volunteers and charitable groups in the Fox Valley – embraces a spirit of giving so that others facing financial challenges have a good holiday today on Christmas Day.
But Taylor also is matter-of-fact in how she views the pantry and its charitable works during any given week, including the one around Christmas.
“In life, everyone of us is going to fall flat on our face,” Taylor said is what she tells new clients. “Some went down yesterday; some are going down today; or they’re going down tomorrow. We help pick ‘em up.”
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The idea for the Secret Santa Shop came from Rachel Muckerheide of Sugar Grove.
“We were just a ‘mom network’ – a bunch of moms involved in a toy and book drive,” Muckerheide said. “I called upon a few of my friends in different neighborhoods and we just put a box out and people dropped their stuff in it.”
Muckerheide said she hosted a similar drive to support the women and children at Mutual Ground, but after seeing how much support the organization gets, she said she cast about for another area of need – and found it by partnering with the pantry.
“In this economy, everybody is just underwater in one way or another,” Muckerheide said. “This is just one less thing [for them] to worry about.”
Joe Kryszak of Elburn collected the books for the Secret Santa Shop through the Elburn Lions for Literacy outreach.
“We concentrate on kids, and we concentrate on needy kids,” Kryszak said. “We got a list by age and gender, and we took them to the libraries ... and the librarians picked out the books.”
Kryszak said he is inspired to help out at Christmas, and any other time, because helping makes him feel good.
“I helped out the Elburn Lions once by prepping the chicken on a Sunday afternoon for a picnic,” Kryszak said. “Something funny happened. I felt good about myself. The Lions is not a service organization – it’s a feel good club.”
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While the Between Friends pantry served nearly 100 families for Christmas, St. Peter Catholic Church’s Food Pantry in Geneva served about 350 families and saw that about 375 children got toys from the Toys for Tots program, spokeswoman Rama Caney said.
“Between our school and the Knights of Columbus and a couple of parish families, we will be taking care of Christmas presents for 13 families,” Caney said.
The church covers needs for many through various giving opportunities, said Lisa Cooper of Geneva.
“We have the Giving Tree, which starts right after Thanksgiving,” Cooper said. “Parishioners take a tag from our tree and buy whatever it says and bring it back. This [past] Sunday after Mass, about 3,000 gifts were taken to six charities and they distribute them to their clients.”
The items sought include the simplest of things, such as hats and mittens, watches, toiletries, games and batteries.
“Things you don’t think of – but batteries are expensive,” Cooper said. “People need them to maintain alarm clocks and flashlights.”
Giving Tree items go to Hesed House in Aurora, the Fox Valley Pregnancy Center, Elgin Mental Health Center, the Visiting Nurse Association of Fox Valley, Youth Services Bureau – formerly called Catholic Charities – and Geneva Nursing and Rehab Center.
“Personally, it’s a wonderful service opportunity,” Cooper said. “We have three little kids, and we do this with another family that has older kids. It helps a lot of people, and everyone can participate in it. That’s why we do it.”
Betsy Metcalfe of Geneva, another St. Peter volunteer, helped manage the Christmas distribution of Toys for Tots through the U.S. Marine Corps, in connection with their food pantry.
She said they distributed about 200 toys to 250 families.
“Our pantry was 30 years old this May, and it’s been a growing ministry, especially with the way the economy is,” Metcalfe said. “This was our first year to do Toys for Tots. It was a new learning experience, but very rewarding.”
The effort always requires the help of lots of volunteers, Metcalfe said, and this year was no exception.
“Some of us have come from that [needing help], and now it’s time to give it forward,” Metcalfe said. “Some who volunteer with us ... say, ‘Life has been good to me. I’d like to help.’”