Back in 1982, Operation St. Nick made sure one family with four children enjoyed a special Christmas with all the gifts for which they wished.
This year, in marking its 30th anniversary of assisting families who have fallen on hard times, Operation St. Nick helped 77 families with 171 children share Christmas with each other in a special family environment in their own homes.
Each family received between $200 and $500 in food, depending on the size of the family, to enjoy over the holiday season. In fact, approximately $28,000 was spent on food alone this year.
In addition, however, the children of those families — all 171 of them — received toys, clothing and other gifts right from their very own wish lists. These presents totaled over $35,000.
"Back in 1982, I had a dream of helping more families, but never thought some day it would grow and we would be helping 77 families at Christmas alone," said Joe Schmitz, president and founder of Operation St. Nick. "Over those 30 years, St. Nick has assisted families at Christmas, back-to-school time, and through other programs, spending more than $1.3 million right here at home."
Originally centered on helping local families enjoy a Christmas they could only dream about, Operation St. Nick has grown to help students with clothing and supplies to go back to school and feel good about themselves. It also delivers new bikes to kids over the Memorial Day weekend, thanks to an annual donation from the late Augie Black and his wife, Marie.
For the third year, St. Nick was able to offer a special bus trip this past summer for families to enjoy a White Sox game together. The trip included tickets, a comfortable bus, lunch and a souvenir in partnership with the Chicago White Sox.
"That has only been possible because of the generosity of the good people of Grundy County who believe in helping those in need," Schmitz said. "They could be a relative, friend, neighbor or, as in most cases, a total stranger.
"Those who donate really don't care who it is. What they care about is seeing that families with children don't miss out on the enjoyments of life that children typically have ... especially at Christmas."
"Our goal is to make sure Santa stops at every home, regardless of their financial situation," Schmitz added. "No child should wake up on Christmas morning and wonder why Santa didn't stop at their home on Christmas Eve."
For the past two years, St. Nick has also been helping military families during the holidays, granting special Christmas wishes through a program titled "12 Days of Christmas Giving."
Dreams have come true for 20 military families during the past two holiday seasons. This year, the second year of the program, more than $20,000 was spent to help those honorably discharged or currently serving in the military enjoy the Christmas season with their own special Christmas wish.
Beyond the Christmas season, Operation St. Nick is also making its presence felt in other ways.
During emergency situations throughout the year, such as when families are burned out of their homes, encounter series medical issues, or fall on hard times for one reason or another, Operation St. Nick works with other not-for-profit agencies to help where help is desperately needed.
This year, through a gift from the William Norton family and a golf tournament in August, The Norton Cup, Operation St. Nick started a new program to improve literacy among children in Grundy County.
In the fall, Gardner Grade School was the recipient of $4,500 worth of new books to supply the school library. St. Nick also provided, through a program called "Book On The Bed," a new book for each of the 171 children who were helped this Christmas. It is a tradition Operation St. Nick plans to continue.
"Every Christmas morning, I look up, smile and thank God and think about those families — and the children, in particular, who are sharing a very special moment in their lives together that wouldn't have been possible if St. Nick wasn't there to help," Schmitz said.
"I hope all who donated to us have the same warm feeling in their hears, because they have made this all possible."
Operation St. Nick is a 501-c3 not-for-profit charity that operates only in Grundy County with a full staff of volunteers and no paid administrative staff.