With Christmas just a few days away, the staff and volunteers at the Howard Mohr Community Center frantically are making their own list and checking it twice to ensure that more than 90 needy residents of Forest Park receive a holiday gift basket.
According to center Director Bev Thompson, each basket will include a ham and other fixings for a complete Christmas dinner, as well as a gift card from Wal-Mart. If children are among the recipients, then gifts like clothing or small toys are part of the basket.
Volunteers distributed the holiday baskets on Dec. 21.
Thompson reported that the program, in existence for more than 15 years, is funded strictly through voluntary donations of food, clothing and cash. Although the majority of donations come from individuals, Thompson said corporate sponsors like Wal-Mart and organizations such as the Forest Park Liquor Association, the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and the VFW also help make the season brighter for the less fortunate.
Even members of the fire department and the children enrolled at St. Bernadine’s get into the act. The fire department helps load volunteers’ cars with baskets for delivery, while the children wrap gifts.
“It makes my heart feel good to know that people who couldn’t afford to have a Christmas get one,” Thompson said.
Linda, who has been volunteering for the last 15 years, agreed. She started delivering holiday baskets for the center when her son was in kindergarten.
“I wanted him to see the other side of Christmas,” said Linda, who declined to give her last name. “For so many kids, Christmas is all about me, me, me. I wanted him to see that people are grateful just for the basics.”
One elderly resident was so grateful, in fact, that he insisted on tipping Linda’s son, who had accompanied her on her rounds.
“It was so heartwarming for someone to want to give something back,” she said.
Thompson pointed out that individuals and families must provide proof of residency and income level when applying for a basket. And although the number of applicants has risen slightly from 2006, especially among elderly residents, Thompson noted that individual donations have not necessarily kept pace.
“I think it’s a combination of people not knowing about the program and the hard times that everyone is facing nowadays,” Thompson said.
Even more daunting than obtaining donations, however, is getting people to acknowledge need.
“A lot are too proud to admit that they need help,” Thompson said.
One woman who was determined to make the season bright for her and her family is Sherri Payne.
“I’m a single mother of a 14 year old, and this program helps tremendously,” Payne said, gesturing at the holiday basket. “It really does.”