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Community Christmas Baskets program depends on intergenerational volunteers

Over the course of a week, short between-class breaks at Worthington High School allow students to purchase food treats (think frozen yogurt, puppy chow, “dirt and sand” cups) from homerooms that collaborate to offer the tasty choices. Proceeds go toward Toys for Tykes. (Ryan McGaughey/The Globe)1 / 2
WHS students participate Tuesday in Toys For Tykes fundraising activiies. The fundraiser is one of the biggest service projects in which the school annually engages. (Ryan McGaughey/The Globe)2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — For more than 90 years, Nobles County citizens have reached out to guarantee those in need around them will have a happier Christmas.

The Community Christmas Baskets program provides food, blankets, personal hygiene items and toys during the first week of December to dozens of needy families. With more than 200 volunteers working behind the scenes, this year’s distribution will take place at American Reformed Church on Friday, Dec. 1.

“Our numbers have been pretty consistent,” said Janelle Johnson, who heads a volunteer board of 20.

“We provided 289 baskets in 2016 to families who are referred to us from churches, school administrators or social service agencies, and we expect our total will be around that figure again this year.

“Among those served were 549 kids age 12 or under.”

Brightening the holidays for children whose families are suffering economically due to unemployment, health crises or other challenges is certainly a goal for Community Christmas Baskets organizers.

A somewhat unintended byproduct is the introduction of a service-minded attitude to other area youths.

While volunteers of all ages collect food, clothing and hygiene products for the baskets, or craft quilts and toys for the annual donation, a distinctly youthful element is also involved.

For instance, the sixth-graders from Worthington’s St. Mary’s School traditionally join the volunteer forces on the distribution day, and the seventh- and eighth-graders from Worthington Christian School (WCS) are contributors, too.

“It allows the kids to experience helping others,” said Martha Lubben, principal of WCS, adding that 15 WCS students are expected to be onsite this year.

“They’re so willing to do whatever needs doing, and they feel good about helping.”

The Worthington High School (WHS) student council has a decades-long history of making it possible for each child age 12 or under to receive a toy for Christmas through the program.

By organizing an in-school Toys for Tykes fundraiser each November, the WHS student council has over time raised many thousands of dollars, which are then used to purchase toys at local stores for the kids who might otherwise go without gifts at Christmas.

“It’s been a tradition,” said Zach Brandt, a first-year WHS communication arts teacher who is a WHS student council co-advisor with colleague Lorna Kruger.

Over the course of a week, short between-class breaks allow students to purchase food treats (think frozen yogurt, puppy chow, “dirt and sand” cups) from homerooms that collaborate to offer the tasty choices.

“A change in school nutritional standards has limited the types of things we can offer, so this year is an abbreviated version of what has been done in the past,” Brandt mentioned.

With about 30 active student council members, Brandt — a WHS alumnus who enjoyed both creating the treats and partaking of them during his high school years — likes that the fundraiser easily involves most of the student body in the activity. It is, Brandt notes, one of the biggest service projects in which the school annually engages.

“Some of the homerooms really latch on to the idea and run with it,” Brandt commented. “Everyone likes to eat, and high school kids especially seem to be constantly hungry.”

On the Community Christmas Baskets distribution day, WHS student council officers work to appropriately match the gifts they purchased to the recipients.

“Those who volunteer that day come away from it saying things like, ‘My eyes are so open now,’ or ‘We’re so fortunate to always have something for Christmas,’” reported Brandt.

Another WHS group that digs into the Community Christmas Baskets effort is its FFA chapter.

“We have 10 to 12 students who assist each year,” said Deb Martin, co-advisor of the WHS FFA chapter with fellow ag teacher Matt Tripp.

“Our kids really look forward to it, and they enjoy working with community members of all ages, as well as assisting families in need.”

Continued Martin, “It gives both groups of people an appreciation for each other and eliminates some preconceived biases. First-time students tell me, ‘It really made me feel good, and I didn’t think it would affect me.’”

One FFA member who has helped for the past two years at the Community Christmas Baskets distribution is WHS junior Ben Rogers. Rogers, currently the group’s treasurer, described his involvement.

“We mostly help with the food and creating the carts for the people,” said Rogers.  “There’s a pre-set amount we’re supposed to put in for each family based on the number of people in it, so we sort out how many potatoes, how many cans of soup, and put the food into the carts.”

Rogers mentioned he and his cohort have worked until day’s end, assisting with cleanup, removing tables and the like.

“It’s a small amount of time to give to help other people have a better holiday,” he said.

Johnson, who has overseen the massive Community Christmas Baskets effort for numerous years, is definitely grateful for the youths who assist.

“We appreciate their support, and they have so much enthusiasm and energy,” said Johnson. “They work hard, and when they walk in, they’re filling a need and not just observing; they’re the hands and feet of the operation.”

Johnson also recognizes the benefit of allowing young people to participate.

“When people grow up knowing about the Community Christmas Baskets program, or maybe work with it as part of a school project, it plants a seed and they’re more likely to remember as adults how it felt to serve and that there is a need,” Johnson said.

“One teen who helped with the toys said, ‘I never realized how fortunate I was to be on the side of the table that I am,’” related Johnson.

Johnson stressed that the Community Christmas Baskets program is made possible with support and contributions from people and organizations from all over Nobles County, not just from Worthington. Similarly, basket recipients are not only from Worthington but from other communities within the county, as well.

Whatever their zip code, recipients appear grateful for what they receive — and youths like Rogers also express gratitude for lessons they learn as volunteers.

“It makes me appreciate what I have,” said Rogers. “They say we’re helping other people, but they’re helping us see the need in our own community.”

Monetary gifts, and donations of non-perishable food, warm clothing (gloves, scarves, hats, mittens) for children or adults, personal hygiene items or toys may be brought to American Reformed Church from 8 a.m. to noon Thursday, Nov. 30. Or, call Dennis and Marie Weeks at 376-9180 to have your donation picked up.