SHOREWOOD — When Minooka High math teacher and boys junior high wrestling coach Mike Assaf, who is battling pancreatic cancer, was offered one wish from the charitable organization HUGS, he asked to have his home decorated for the holidays. He wasn't sure how it would otherwise get done this year.
Assaf and his wife, Anna, have four children under the age of 7, including a 2-month-old. That’s all it took for HUGS members to begin spreading the word through their e-mail chain and lining up people to help the family.
HUGS board member Laura Charland, whose son wrestled for coach Assaf before high school, contacted his former teammates. A huge group of over 60 former students and athletes all wanted to help.
As it turned out, too many helpers could have created a liability, so four teens and Charland took on the project.
The Assaf home had a little “Charlie Brown” tree in the front yard, Charland said. So they purchased a 12-foot fresh cut Christmas tree, dug a hole in the yard and dropped it in for the holidays.
“We didn’t want to bother them by planting a (real) tree and having to contact JULIE to dig a hole,” Charland said. “Some dads got the tree, cut off some branches and set it in the hole.”
They contacted Holiday “D” Lights, hoping to get a good deal on putting up outdoor lights. The deal turned out to be owner Brian Delach and three employees who came with a cherry picker and decorated the entire yard at no charge.
The teens and Charland also purchased and decorated an artificial tree for the inside of the Assaf home. Charland insisted it be delivered complete.
“I wasn’t going to bring it in a box,” she said. “We had to make it easy, they have babies at home.”
The teens donned Santa hats, and along with Charland, they delivered the decorated tree, cookies and gifts for the children.
HUGS is a Shorewood-based, grassroots charitable organization, which has found a niche in helping people in surrounding communities by granting wishes that might otherwise fall through the cracks.
“Our Wishes program is unique because we help the everyday person who may be struggling,” said HUGS President Heidi Serena. “Their problems may be too small or too ordinary to get the help they may need. We truly believe our Wishes program not only helps people who need assistance, but also touch the hearts of people and gives them hope of a brighter tomorrow.”
The Assaf family is just one of the many recipients who have had a wish granted over the past three years since HUGS created the Wishes program.
A Shorewood woman wrote asking that a flower garden be planted for her neighbor. The neighbor’s husband, who had started the garden for his wife, passed away earlier in the year, before it was finished.
“She wrote how sad it was that the garden was incomplete,” said HUGS member Molly Babyak. With the help of a local landscaper and elbow grease from HUGS members, the flower garden was completed so the recipient could enjoy it every day.
The HUGS member who organized the wish has since become the recipient’s secret angel. She stops by when the seasons change or for a holiday and places decorations in the garden, like flags, scarecrows and solar lights.
“The wish has taken on a life of its own,” Babyak said. “We get a call that this HUGS angel has done it again and brightened (this woman’s) day.”
Then there’s the wish for a single mother of two whose car didn’t have heat and she had to wrap her children in blankets. HUGS stepped in and got her car repaired.
A wish submitted by a teenage boy asked for massages to help his teacher get through the pain of treatments while battling cancer. HUGS provided the teen with a package of massages and five ready-made meals to help the family.
“We have helped those struggling with the economy, cancer patients, memorial funds, health care needs, battered women and educational needs for children, to name a few,” Serena said. HUGS has granted 46 wishes just this year, which is double the number during their first two years in existence. The real miracle is how each wish changes the lives of everyone who has a hand in helping to make the wish come true.
“Helping becomes contagious and passions are fulfilled not only for the wish recipients, but for our members and the people submitting the requests,” Charland said.
The group relies on community support to carry out its mission, whether it’s through fundraising at their annual Chocolate Ball in February, monetary donations from the public, services donated by local businesses, or the support of the town and the mayor, Charland said.
"HUGS is only a vehicle to help people,” said Charland. “We feel so lucky to be able to help so many.”