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Community Christmas Baskets to deliver the goods for 85th year

Volunteers fill Community Christmas Baskets in this December 2012 photo. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Carts are preloaded with food for the 2012 Community Christmas Baskets program, with gifts and toys still be added. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — An 85-year Nobles County tradition remains in full swing this season, as the dozens of volunteers who make possible the Community Christmas Baskets for those in need prepare to help once again in 2013.

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“It’s an impressive tradition for the community,” said Janelle Johnson, who shares volunteer co-chair duties for the overall effort with Marcia Shepherd. “To think that for 85 years people voluntarily give, and give generously, is pretty amazing.

“With all the different levels of giving — from local clubs, organizations, churches, businesses and individuals — and nobody wants anything in return, this is truly an act of giving in its purest form.”

The good news is that the giving, which last year benefited about 300 Nobles County households and roughly 1,250 individuals (600 of them children under age 12), continues; the not-so-happy news is that the need for assistance never seems to disappear.

“People really appreciate receiving something they can use,” said Don Basche, a retired high school teacher and administrator who has served as a delivery driver for the program for well over 10 years. “To see how graciously accepted these gifts are by the recipients makes it very rewarding.”

The annual distribution, which is scheduled to take place Friday (preparation occurs Thursday, with Worthington’s American Reformed Church the site of both days’ activities), provides non-perishable food, personal hygiene items, toys and books for children, and cold weather essentials such as mittens, hats, socks, gloves and pajamas.

In order to be selected for the budget-stretching gifts, local clergy or social service organizations must refer potential basket recipients to the program.

The Worthington-based Community Christmas Basket program has no paid staff, receives no gaming or governmental funds and is not a 501c3 organization.

“There’s no one entity that can claim this is theirs,” Johnson clarified. “We’re just the facilitators, with the community saying, ‘Here’s all this useful stuff, would you please give it to those who need it most?’

“It’s so simple, yet it’s huge.”

The effort extends throughout the entire county, with school children conducting food and mitten drives, churches requesting donations of food or dollars to purchase necessary goods, musicians collaborating on benefit concerts (such as the ALBs), and high schoolers and staff raising funds through the sale of treats during a couple weeks at the end of November.

“The Worthington High School student body and staff raise between $5,000 and $7,000 each year by selling primarily food items,” explained Kerry Johnson, who, along with Kayla DeBoer, is a co-advisor of the WHS student council.

“Kids and staff sell things like pizza, puppy chow, hot Cheetos and cheese, pancakes, chocolate-covered bacon, Oreo cups and Cold Stone ice cream, and the staff buy raffle tickets for opportunities to wear jeans on Wednesdays,” she listed.

“The kids help shop for the toys — and Wal-Mart and ShopKo each donate $1,000 toward this, too — and on the basket distribution day, Student Council members assist in handing out the toys.”

Kerry Johnson also pointed out a focus on purchasing toys for ages 0 to 12 years old, seeking items that build positive self-esteem among recipients and eschewing things like toy weapons.

While the bulk of the Christmas basket recipients pick up their gifts in person at American Reformed Church, there are many who cannot make the trip or lack necessary transportation to the site. In those cases, volunteer delivery drivers come to them.\

“I saw in the paper they needed volunteers, and so I thought I could help,” recalled Jerry Eykyn, Worthington, of how he became a regular Christmas basket delivery person years ago. “Now I’m semi-retired, so I just plan not to work on those days.

“It’s fun to help, and it goes to people who really need the boost,” Eykyn continued. “And it feels good to do it, because you’re helping people who definitely need the support.

“It’s good to see the school kids help, too, because it opens their eyes to others’ needs and teaches them about volunteerism.”

Doug Anton, who farms near Lake Ocheda and is a past board member of New Vision Coop, remembers the origins of involving the Coop in assisting with hauling donations of food, clothing and toys to the church for sorting and distribution.

“We realized it was easier to put these things in a pickup than a car, so staff and members of New Vision — then it was still Consolidated Coop—started helping, and they still do it today,” noted Anton, a dependable Christmas basket volunteer since the early 1990s. “Denny Weber was in charge of making that happen.

“I feel there is a real need, and I like to give back to the community,” the lifelong Worthington resident said of the program. “That’s why I do it — there are people who really appreciate it.”

Concurred Jerry Vajgrt, another volunteer delivery driver, “The program is absolutely wonderful, and I really think the baskets go to the right people.

“The thing that amazes me is the number of people who participate as volunteers. It takes a lot of organization to make it happen, but with everyone working together, it gets done.”

Janelle Johnson believes it’s that desire to be of service, as well as the collective wish to assist young children, motivating many of the donations and volunteers.

“People just pour it out,” she exclaimed. “Everyone wants kids to have a good Christmas and that drives people a lot of the time — the wish that every child has a present at Christmas.

“No one mandates that we do this. It is an event that belongs to the whole community, that’s generated by the community, and it would simply cease to exist without the volunteer and donor support.”

Donations for Community Christmas Baskets may be taken to American Reformed Church, 1720 N. Burlington, Worthington, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, or volunteers will pick up donations if needed. For donation pick-up, call 376-4869 or 376-9180. Items needed include non-perishable food, new gifts of mittens, gloves, hats or scarves, toiletries, and new toys or books for children ages 12 and younger. To volunteer your time to assist, call 372-2419. Monetary donations may be sent to Community Christmas Baskets, P.O. Box 552, Worthington 56187.