Back when I believed in Santa Claus and had yet to experience a blizzard, I liked the winter holidays a lot more, but now when Halloween ends I wish I could hibernate until the tulips bloom. Since I can’t, I seem to spend much of November and December ranting about the cold, grumbling about the crowds, and stressing over the present-buying budget that seems to shrink every year. I’m sure I’m not alone in this – especially the shrinking-budget thing – so I want to share some information that has helped me to remember what the holiday season is really all about.

This month, the Forest Park Food Pantry will be helping approximately 150 families in our village celebrate the holidays by providing a ham and all of the fixings, along with gifts from Santa for the children. They also served traditional Thanksgiving dinners and desserts to those families.

West Suburban PADS has assisted nearly 900 households in our area this year, including 35 in Forest Park. They help those who are experiencing a housing crisis by providing immediate, emergency shelter; supportive and employment-readiness services; short- and long-term supportive housing for qualified households; and homeless prevention services.

Last but not least, CATS for Forest Park has cared for nearly two dozen stray cats in 2011, and perhaps more impressive there were no new kittens born in my alley because CATS organizer Terri Woods managed to trap and neuter the adult strays in the area.

Talking to Terri as well as Lynda Schueler, executive director of PADS, and Karen Dylewski, who oversees the Food Pantry, reminded me that the gifts we give to our community are more meaningful than anything we fight crowds and snow to buy.

I view Forest Park as my extended family, which is why it’s very important to me to keep local charities on my Christmas list despite my limited budget. I send annual donations to PADS and the Animal Care League. (Though located in Oak Park, the Animal Care League sponsors CATS for Forest Park; just put a note in with your donation that your funds should be directed to CATS.) I will also be dropping off canned goods at Ed’s Way, which collects food for the Food Pantry year-round.

If you don’t have money to spare, consider making a New Year’s resolution to volunteer locally. We all know that time can be just as valuable as money and these organizations need our help year-round.

“PADS volunteers help nurture the basic well-being of our guests and encourage their work toward self-sufficiency goals in both the emergency shelter and in our Maywood day-time SupportCenter,” Schueler told me, explaining that they can also use people to contribute professional expertise (e.g. design, photography, legal and medical counsel) and help with fundraising and special events. You can get more information at their website, www.westsuburbanpads.org.

Last year my husband and I built shelters for CATS for Forest Park, which is entirely volunteer run, and could always use more people to feed and monitor the strays’ well-being during the harsh winter months. Contact CATS at cats4forestpark@gmail.com.

Karen Dylewski can be reached at kdylewski@forestpark.net or 708-771-7737 if you would like to organize a food drive for the Food Pantry. She praised local businesses, schools, churches, and the many residents who helped to provide holiday feasts for those in need, saying, “Forest Park really comes together to make this happen every year.”

That statement washed away my bah-humbug feelings by reminding me that my neighbors know the true meaning of generosity. Let’s keep it up in 2012!