40th annual Children's Christmas Party spreads holiday cheer
NORMAL — A Christmas party isn't complete without a few smiles.
And the smiles were stretching from attendees to volunteers alike on Saturday at the McLean County Children's Christmas Party, which returned to the Midwest Food Bank.
Longtime event organizer and Local 362 member John Penn said the best part is seeing the kids smile before cheering for Santa Claus.
He noted it's a joint effort, giving blessings of food and gifts for kids to families. It was made possible with help from the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, the Bloomington & Normal Trades & Labor Assembly, plus others, including The Pantagraph's Goodfellow Fund.
Penn said he had four generations of family members helping Saturday: his daughter Shawn Eiker, granddaughter Kaitlyn Ryan, and a great-grandson.
Eiker agreed that Christmastime shouldn't be stressful for families. She hoped that providing a ham or turkey, along with other gifts, would help attendees enjoy a nice meal and open some presents together.
The party was a community showing, she said.
Ryan said she loves seeing people smile, as well giving back and knowing she can help make someone's day — and their Christmas.
Normal's Emely Thompson also volunteered Saturday. She said when she thinks of all the blessings in her life, she knows there are some who have it worse off. So, she wanted to help.
"It's been a long year with ups and downs, but it's always good at the end of the year to give back, so that every family can celebrate Christmas, or celebrate the holidays any way they choose to," said Thompson.
In 1982, the McLean County Chamber of Commerce and the Bloomington & Normal Trades & Labor Assembly collaborated to host the first party, which would assist low-income families during a recession.
In each of its first few years, the party would help between 350 and 450 children have a more memorable holiday.
But now, in its 40th year, the Children's Christmas Party aided a record 561 families with 1,823 children.
Noting those heightened numbers, Penn said their only regret is that "there's a need for this."
Mike Matejka, a retired member of Laborers' Local 362, said the Christmas party has gone through many changes over the years.
Traditionally, there were two parties held at Bloomington High School with various games and activities for kids.
"It was fun to be able to have that time to interact with the families and the children, and ISU Athletics always came out and played with the kids and everything," Matejka said.
But after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the giveaway moved to Midwest Food Bank and became a drive-through gift and food distribution event.
On Friday, dozens of families were at the food bank packing boxes full of toys, books, candy and fruit. Other donors for the party included Farm & Fleet, Meijer, Ferrero and Gingerbread House Toys.
Volunteer Samantha Morehead said her grandfather, Ron Morehead, was heavily involved with the community and unions and put his heart and soul into this annual event. She said she can't think of having a Christmas season without it.
"Ever since I was born, I can remember tagging along, volunteering, and making sure the Christmas party went seamlessly," Morehead said. "It's been a great experience and really fulfilling for our family to still be part of it now that my grandpa is gone."
Morehead said her fondest memories were when the party was held at the Normal Theater, where volunteers would play classic cartoons.
Sporting a long white beard and a spiffy red suit at the Saturday party was "Kris Kringle" and his compatriot Mrs. Claus. Mr. Kringle recommended that people watch the Peanuts special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" to learn what the holiday spirit is all about.
Because of the growing number of families signing up for the event, Matejka said he anticipates keeping the event at the food bank and maintaining the drive-through format.
Families received gift cards with a time to arrive between 9 a.m. and noon on Saturday to pick up their gift and food boxes. One family, including Deidre Nehrt and one of her older daughters, didn't know who mailed them an invitation.
After loading up, Nehrt said she was overwhelmed by the blessings. The mother of six said her family has been through a "journey" over the past three years, marked by her father's passing in 2020, eight months of homelessness, and her youngest daughter becoming very ill.
Nehrt said property is hard to find right now in Bloomington-Normal, adding: "People don't realize that the (housing) shortage is real."
They stayed with other people, Nehrt said, until they found a place they could afford. Three days after they moved in, she said her 11-year-old daughter, Amalia Schmidt, had another recurring headache. A CAT scan soon discovered a mass on her brain.
Despite their struggles with housing and her child's illness, Nehrt said she doesn't feel discouraged. She gave thanks to the community showing at the Christmas party and other charitable events in Bloomington-Normal.
The mother is looking forward to putting up Christmas decorations and watching movies over the holiday with Amalia.
"I'm gonna do what I need to do to embrace that moment," she said.