Holiday program helps Oak Park, River Forest families

December 8, 2011 (OAK PARK, Ill.)

The sixth graders at Percy A. Julian Middle School in Oak Park are taking a break from science class to get some key lessons in gift-wrapping. Presentation counts.

"We had to get different items and wrap it up, such as like toys and books for families that are less fortunate," Jupiter Dandridge, 6th grader said. "I wrapped a Twilight book."

The school is sponsoring 54 low income families in the Oak Park and River Forest communities for the holidays.

"Sometimes the students bring in money and the advisory teachers may go out and purchase gifts or students may go with advisory teachers and actually go to the store and pick out the gifts. We do have a list to work from of what the families want and what they need the most," Dr. Victoria Sharts, principal, said.

The children's efforts are part of a larger project known as the Holiday Food and Gift Basket Program run by the Community of Congregations. Volunteers provide gifts to 950 households that represent more than 2,200 individuals. Families are referred by about 30 social service agencies based on their income. The gift bags are labeled with special codes to keep their identities confidential.

"Like a lot of people, being in a financial situation is something new. They've lost a job or an illness or something that they weren't expecting. They have bills they can no longer meet. So yeah, they have a need," Patty Henek, coordinator, Holiday Food and Gift Basket Program, said.

The Holiday Food And Gift Basket Program has been serving low income residents since the 1970s. The middle schoolers say participating makes them count their blessings when creating their own wish lists.

"I wouldn't want to be greedy about it. I wouldn't want to beg them for something because I already have enough," Grace Dennis said.

"They were just simple things that we wouldn't think about, but that this family really needed," Grace Evans said.

On Saturday, volunteer drivers will hand deliver the gifts to each of the families. To get involved, visit

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