During Christmas time, staff members at the Western Illinois Regional Council are especially busy. In addition to their regular jobs, they play the role of Santa and his elves.
The Council provides many things throughout the year for those in need. Help getting food, paying the heating bill, and keeping the lights on.
Those could be considered necessities, and if you ask a child, something else the agency provides is also a necessity. Christmas.
Director Suzan Nash says the WIRC makes Christmas possible through “Project Santa."
“We get referrals of children who may be in need from the schools, and we select them to participate in the program," Nash said. "Then we ask for a wish list, and then what we do is we go out and try to fulfill that wish list."
I asked her what were some of the things children have received in the past.
“Oh, you know puzzles, books, we make sure every child receives some clothing. We also give a sack of groceries to them, to each of the families who come in. So we try to give them something of substance from the food perspective, then also on the clothing side of it. Then also something that’s going to make it fun for them. ”
Once the “wish lists” are put together, WIRC employees such as Theresa Cadle buy the items.
She told me that people can also "adopt" a family through the WIRC, and purchase the items themselves to donate.
I talked to her as she pushed a cart through Macomb’s K-mart reading what she needs to find off the “wish list”
“Let’s go get some toys that make noise,” she said looking at the clipboard in her shopping cart.
I asked Cadle how long had she been involved in Project Santa.
“From day one,” she said.
“Has this has been going on for a good amount of years?" I asked her.
“This is 29 years, next year will be our big thirty," Cadle said. "So I think it’s time to hand it over."
No," she said and smiled, " I don’t know what I’d do without being able to do it. I would love to be a mouse under every one of these kids’s trees just to see the look on their faces when they open all their stuff.”
Project Santa provides presents to families in McDonough, Warren, Hancock and Henderson counties. Some get their presents delivered. For McDonough County, the presents are taken back to the regional council’s Macomb office and put into bundles for each family.
On their assigned night each family comes to the office to get their bundle. The gifts are taken home to be opened on Christmas morning, but each kid gets to open one, in front of a Christmas tree covered in lights.
But more importantly they get to open it with Santa.
Tim Manock played Santa this year. He’s normally in charge of the WIRC's program for weatherizing homes.
Sometimes he helps the same families in both roles.
“I can remember one aspect, an older girl, years ago," Manock said. " It’s probably been 10 years ago. She was probably ten or eleven years and she’d come for Project Santa. And she just talked and talked and talked. About nine months later I was out to her home, we were weatherizing their home. It was out in Hancock county. First thing she just started in when I showed up at the door, just again, and she said you look familiar! And I didn’t say a word , I just laughed. I said ahhh, you probably just think I look like some body.”
Director Suzan Nash said sometimes the most satisfying moments come after all the wrapping paper is cleaned up and the tree put away,sometimes years later.
“Several years ago, " Nash said, " Theresa came into me and said this family doesn’t have a tree and I said we’ll buy them one. We went out and we bought an artificial tree so that they could put it up every year and the young man at the time, I’m going say was probably about eight or nine. And when he turned 17 he brought the tree back in great, great condition.
And said this brought me so much joy and he says, we’re now on our feet. My family and I are now on our feet and we wanted to bring it back so you can give it to someone else who might need it.”
Employees at the regional council work all year to help people. Sometimes it hard for them to tell whether their efforts have, in fact, been successful. With Project Santa it much easier to see the results.