Volunteers brighten Christmas for people in need

December 25, 2011 (RIVER GROVE, Ill.)

These days, it seems that much of the holiday is wrapped up in 50-inch flat-screens and cashmere sweaters, but the gift of giving is about much more than presents, and Sunday, thousands of volunteers across Chicagoland proved that the best gift that anyone can give, whether on Christmas or any other day, is themselves.

"It's the only place on Christmas at five o'clock in the morning that people are happy and they've been up half the night," said Lucy Calabrese of Christmas Cheer, where it really is the joy of helping others that drives the 500-plus volunteers. Here, they spent several hours packing more than 16,000 meals that were then delivered to the poor around Chicagoland. It is the largest non-profit of its kind.

"We're the only charity, as far as we know, that delivers to the home by name so each child will get either a stuffed animal or book, by age, by name," said Calabrese.

At St. Sabina Catholic Church a home-cooked lunch, prepared by parishioners, was served to some 400 homeless Sunday. In addition to the meal, children were allowed to choose from the many toys that were donated for them.

"Every child should have the joy of pulling some wrapping paper and looking at that toy or looking at that gift and have something that is theirs," said Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina.

On the city's North Side, Inspiration Cafe feeds the homeless 365 days a year. On Sunday, they had a special Christmas dinner. Served restaurant style, volunteers for the Jewish United Fund took patrons' orders and then delivered them to their tables.

"Today just happens to be for a Christmas meal, but it's something that we do on a weekly basis that they offer meals and food to people in need," said Ricky Levy of the Jewish United Fund.

For those on the receiving end of that help, the meal, and the special treatment was very much appreciated.

"If you're on the street and you don't have no place to go, this would be the place to come and go to," said Joanne Breivogel, who is homeless and comes to Inspiration Cafe every day. "I think it helps me out a great deal, especially when it's cold out."

Unfortunately, the need for meals like this is increasing. According to the Salvation Army, some parts of Chicago have seen food requests spike 200 to 400 percent. A number like that can be hard to fathom, but it highlights the need for people to donate and volunteer year-round and not just on Christmas.

To donate to Christmas Cheer Foundation: www.christmascheer.org

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