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Gifts from the heart

Submitted Photo Renae Van Der Linden models a pair of pajamas sewn during the 2012 Pajama Party at Worthington's American Reformed Church. At right, fellow Worthington High School student Karissa Balster holds another pair.

WORTHINGTON -- With mild air temperatures and green grass still underfoot, it's natural to ignore that winter is around the corner -- and when it arrives, not everyone will have what it takes to bundle up.

But the Community Christmas Baskets program -- an over 80-year tradition in Nobles County that will take place this year on Dec. 6 and 7 -- does what it can to keep people warm, both inside and out.

With this annual distribution of non-perishable food, personal hygiene items, toys and books for children -- not to mention mittens, pajamas, socks, hats and gloves -- for the neediest in our midst, volunteers are doing their part to transfer a warm glow to others.

"Our theme this year is 'warm hearts give warmth at Christmas,'" shared Robyn Moser, an eight-year Community Christmas Baskets volunteer. Moser co-chairs the publicity effort with Sharon Johnson.

"There are many items we offer that help keep people warm, like pajamas, quilts, socks and mittens," she added. "So many people give, whether by volunteering, making phone calls or donating something. It takes dozens and dozens of people to make this happen."

The Worthington-based Community Christmas Baskets program has no paid staff, receives no gaming or governmental funds and is not a 501c3 organization. Instead, volunteer co-chairs Janelle Johnson and Marcia Shepherd lead a series of committees that, last year, ultimately provided about 330 baskets benefiting a total of roughly 1,500 people from throughout Nobles County.

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

"We see the baskets as benefiting people who need a little extra help," clarified Janelle Johnson. "These are people who may not have room in their budgets for extra gifts, clothing or food purchases."

Each year, American Reformed Church plays host to the massive collection and distribution effort. The church's large multi-purpose room is filled with donations on a Thursday, only to be emptied out again by the end of Friday.

"When this portion of the building was put up about 15 years ago, we wanted it to be used for the greater community, so we are happy to share it for this purpose," The Rev. Irwin Van Leeuwen of American Reformed said. "To me, the Christmas basket time is a beautiful picture of the community working together to do something good for someone else."

Van Leeuwen's congregation, like many others in the area, doesn't stop there with their contributions; the church also conducts an underwear drive each November, while First Lutheran Church dedicates a Christmas tree in its fellowship hall for sock donations.

In addition, American Reformed Church provides space for the fall "Pajama Party" organized by Roxanne Hayenga, during which more than 60 sets of pajamas for children were sewn for the Community Christmas Baskets program.

"People who sew tend to have stashes of fabric at home, and they feel so much better when it isn't just sitting in boxes at their houses but gets put to good use for someone else," said Hayenga. She said the pajamas are sewn in children's sizes XS to XL in a "sweatsuit" style, making them versatile enough that some kids wear the tops to school.

Area businesses also get in on the act, with one example being Lit'l Wizards of downtown Worthington. To make it easy for people to donate, owner Maria Thier provides a 50 percent discount on toys and gifts purchased for the baskets.

"Then we deliver the items to the basket site," explained Thier. "It's one way of donating on our part, and it's great to get some educational products out there for kids. We provide shoppers with gift ideas for different age groups, too."

School children also assist, with the Worthington High School student council annually donating proceeds (often as much as $4,000 to $5,000) from late-December treat sales at the school to purchase toys and books, Sunny Days Preschool students pitching in with socks and Prairie Elementary's Scholastic book fair providing many books for the program.

"I really appreciate that," said Community Christmas Baskets volunteer Peggy Olson of the Prairie book funds. "They put out a container for spare change to be donated, and the teachers also donate, and then I get to pick out the books.

"We try to include a book in the baskets for every child 12 or under, and this year we received 158 books through those book fair donations."

Moser stressed that while it is often children who are first thought of when items are purchased and donated, adults are in need of things -- particularly clothing -- too.

"The men's area for clothing is the most needy," Moser revealed. "Whether it's dress shirts, sweatshirts, pajamas, underwear or socks, we are thankful for anything that is donated.

"Toiletry items -- things like soap, toothpaste, shampoo, combs and brushes -- are also appreciated."

On Thursday, Dec. 6, volunteers will accept and sort donations at American Reformed Church from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Drivers are available to pick up donations on that day, if donors are not able to drop things off themselves. The following day, recipients either visit the church beginning at 12:30 p.m. to receive their baskets, or volunteers deliver baskets to those who are homebound or lack transportation.

"It's a big operation, and it take a lot of volunteers to make it all come together," Van Leeuwen said of the Community Christmas Baskets project. "People love to have a hands-on way of helping others, and whether it's donating food, buying a pair of underwear or volunteering, this is a tangible way to do that."

Donations for the Community Christmas Baskets may be taken to American Reformed Church, 1720 N. Burlington, Worthington, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 6 -- 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. Monetary donations may be sent to Community Christmas Baskets, P.O. Box 552, Worthington 56187. Community Christmas Baskets is a Thrivent participant.