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“I don’t think the landing on Normandy could have been done with more precision than this,” remarks Joann LaPorte about the Catholic Charities of Lake County’s Christmas Gift Program, for which she has been a volunteer for seven years. “It’s the most phenomenal operation you’ll ever see.”
Serving families and individuals without regard to religion, Catholic Charities has been making joyous Christmas mornings a reality for the underprivileged living and working in Lake County for more than 25 years. Last year alone, more than $550,000 worth of holiday gifts were handed out to over 11,200 people during the first two weeks of December. With numbers like these, an undertaking of this magnitude demands a strong leader and more than 300 volunteers. Jim Wogan, Lake County Volunteer Coordinator for Catholic Charities, serves as the program’s heart and soul, managing every aspect from donor/client matching to the literal heavy lifting.
The program actually begins in September, explains Wogan, when no one is even thinking about Christmas. Registration is available at more than 35 social service organizations throughout Lake County. A picture ID and medical card are required to qualify the family or individual. Each client fills out a form with their individual or family’s sizes, as well as several gift suggestions, which results in thousands of pages of paperwork.
Now is also the time when Catholic Charities reaches out to its “base,” the large pool of donors who have given in the past, to remind them of the upcoming season. Donors can be either a single person just looking to help out an elderly neighbor, or entire corporations, parishes, or schools, taking on 200 families at a time. And the search for donors is never ending.
While it would be orderly to think a majority of the donor/client matching happens in the months leading up to December, crunch time really begins around Thanksgiving, when the community begins to get in the holiday spirit. “Its wild, but it’s wonderful,” says Lynn Isola, a 10-year volunteer veteran of the program, of the long hours spent matching donors to clients. Isola and her counterparts make up a group affectionately referred to as the “Hard Core,” a body of volunteers who work 12-hour shifts every day leading up to and through the organization and distribution of the gifts. The first week of December, the Hard Core commandeer a former Jewel grocery store on Lewis Avenue in Waukegan and begin to accept and sort the gifts. Volunteers like Isola and LaPorte make this effort move like clockwork, whether it be serving hot food to the workers or assisting those in need with their designated pickup times.
Wogan, LaPorte, Isola, and the hundreds of other tireless volunteers have made the Christmas Gift Program a part of their own personal holiday traditions. “You see people not being as blessed as we are,” explains Isola. “This is a chance to make Christmas special for some others that wouldn’t be able to have it any other way, and the need is much greater now than it has been in past years.”
To become a donor or volunteer to the Catholic Charities of Lake County’s Christmas Gift Program, contact Jim Wogan at 847-782-4210. To donate water, soda, or paper goods for use by the hundreds of volunteers, contact Joann LaPorte at 847-234-3417.