To be eligible for the program, applicants must have a photo identification card and a medical card.
“I’m guessing we already have 10,000 people who have applied this year,” explains Jim Wogan, Director of the Christmas Gift Program drive. “Last year we helped more than 13,000. We could top that this year without blinking an eye…if we get the donor support we need,” he adds.
The Christmas Gift Program works by having applications matched with donors. “We might get a school that says they’ll take 200 kids. Our volunteers then go through the applications and identify 200 children. The school is then responsible for buying the gifts requested on the application and dropping them off at one of our distribution sites,” explains Jim. “What’s happening this year is that same school that took 200 kids in 2010 has only requested 150 this year. This might not seem like a big change in support, but if you have a handful of donors do the same thing, you can see how a shortfall happens,” Jim says.
But don’t mistake Jim’s concern for pessimism. “I don’t know how this program would work without Jim running it,” says Jean Morse of Lake Forest, who has worked side-by-side with Jim since 1995. “He is such a big, joyful personality, and he knows how to rally the troops better than anyone,” she adds.
“Jim has an enormous heart and gives 200 percent to the program,” explains Diane Clarke, one of the program’s founding volunteers. “He is an inspiration to us all. Every year, the program grows because he doesn’t know how to say ‘no.’ And, we wouldn’t want it any other way because that’s what this program is all about.”
While the Christmas Program was once open to families, because of the level of need today, the focus is now on children only. “Our hope is that every child we learn about through the application process receives a toy and a piece of clothing,” Jean says. “There’s a lot of running around that happens to make sure we meet this goal.” Once the gifts are brought to a Catholic Charities drop-off site, each gift is cross-checked with the application by a team of volunteers to make sure the request has been filled.
The in-take procedures and organization of gifts occurs over the course several days with multiple teams of volunteers rotating in. And while Catholic Charities thrives because of the volunteer efforts of various church groups, it counts the sailors from Great Lakes among their best help. “We really become a family when we work together year after year,” says Jean. “But we’re always looking for more people to join our family.”
There are multiple ways people can help in this effort—from being a gift donor, to organizing the gifts once they’re received, to distributing the gifts to families, to feeding the volunteers who work around the clock. “Diane used to leave in the middle of the day to go home and make sandwiches for all the volunteers,” remembers Lake Bluff’s Debbie Stepan, a volunteer since the mid-1990s. “But each year, we tweak the process to make it a little better and now have lunches brought in. It’s a huge help.”
It’s not too late to become a donor or volunteer. “The beauty of the Christmas Gift Program is that you see the process come full circle,” says Debbie. “You get to see the gifts come in, and then if you’re really lucky, you can be there when the family comes to pick them up,” Debbie says. “My favorite memories are of the children who request bikes. Sometimes they come with their parents to pick up the gifts. If you can just imagine the happy squeals they make when the bike is wheeled out—they know it’s for them—a wish has come true,” she adds. “You only have to work with this program once to become hooked.”
If you’d like to participate in the Christmas Gift Program, contact Jim Wogan as soon as possible at 847-782-4210, or email him at [email protected] Or, to become a donor, download a donor form [HERE].
—Ann Marie Scheidler