Operation St. Nick – a Morris-based charity that has helped Grundy County residents for nearly 40 years – has wrapped up another year of giving. And organizers said this year included some bona fide Christmas magic.
“The Christmas distribution was special,” said Operation St. Nick president Joe Schmitz, recounting one story from this year where he was able to gift a family an electric train set that he just happened to have in his car, right as one of their children wished for it.
“I’ve only had a few of these happen where I knew that the Lord was present. ... They [the family] looked at each other, they looked at me, I looked at the sky and said, ‘whoa.’ This is divine intervention. Those don’t happen that often, but there’s been a few of those over 38 years.”
Schmitz, working out of his new office space at Grundy Bank in Morris, said 2019 was a successful year, with the distribution of gifts and toys to 157 children and 53 families who had fallen on hard times for one reason or another.
“What’s unique about our Christmas program is that each of these 157 children received the gifts right from their own wish lists, just like your children and mine, totaling $31,085,” Schmitz said. “The 53 families of these children also received $26,700 in food to take them through the holiday season and into the new year, [which] is really a modern day miracle of generosity.”
Operation St. Nick works closely with We Care of Grundy County, helping to make sure that the neediest families in Grundy are being served. Schmitz said working with We Care – a food and clothing pantry in Morris – helps to make sure that families in need aren’t falling through the cracks.
“I only wish the generous people of Grundy County who donate and believe in Operation St. Nick could see the tears of joy from the parents of these children at our distribution, but that is not possible since we make sure the families’ identities are kept private,” added Linda Baker, Operation St. Nick Christmas program coordinator. “It makes my Christmas knowing that many of these families would never have been able to afford a Christmas to this magnitude without St. Nick being there for them.”
But don’t let the name fool you. Operation St. Nick is about more than the spirit of Christmas. St. Nick is actually an acronym; the letters stand for Serving Grundy County, Touching Lives, Noticing Area of Needs, Instilling Hope, Caring for Children and Kindness.
Assisting veterans has become an important part of the organization’s mission.
“The military has taken a special place,” Schmitz said. “I was in the Navy four years, and these vets, whether it’s helping them or giving them a wish and saluting them for their service and time, has become very special.”
From Memorial Day though the 4th of July, the organization’s Christmas in July program, in partnership with the Morris Herald-News, assisted 17 local veterans, contributing a total of $43,271 to veteran needs and wishes.
This year’s radio auction – the 37th annual event for Operation St. Nick – raised a record $132,898. The top item on the auction, which aired on WCSJ on Dec. 8, was a Bob Gibson autographed jersey from his days in the minors with the Rochester Redwings, bringing in $11,000 from an anonymous bidder.
Additional programs include the bicycle program each spring, where Operation St. Nick partners with Ambucs of Grundy County to provide bicycles for children with special needs. In 2019, the organization spent $8,493 on 11 bicycles, giving children an opportunity to own their first bike custom made for them.
The back to school program assists needy children in the fall by providing $150 in clothing and shoes and $50 in school supplies for children, totaling $38,894 for more than 300 Grundy County students in 2019.
Emergency planning assistance operates year round, providing assistance for families when their children have medical emergencies or when they are unable to pay their regular monthly bills due to financial difficulties.
Volunteers with Operation St. Nick meet with the families and determine their needs before the assistance is granted. In 2019, the organization spent $33,970 on emergency family assistance.
Operation St. Nick also assists four local food pantries, as well as purchases gas cards for families whose children have been hospitalized in Chicago or the suburbs. In 2019, the organization spent a total of $8,912 to accomplish this goal, Schmitz said.
Heading into 2020, the organization will now work on the budget and get back to planning for the upcoming year.
“Now I’ll sit down with all the results and see where we’re at and set up a budget for the board,” Schmitz said. “I’ll set up a preliminary budget, and we’ll kick it around and decide where there’s more need. We work closely with We Care because we have a nice working relationship, we help each other out, they give us names if there’s somebody who they can only do so much for and they need extra help.”
Schmitz said the most important part for Operation St. Nick is to stop people from falling through the cracks and make sure everyone who is in need gets attention.
“St. Francis had it right,” Schmitz said. “You receive by giving, and it’s a great feeling.”
For Schmitz, the organization’s roots predate its foundation, starting with the example set by his own father when he was just a child.
“Christmas is what started it,” he said. “It started when I was a 10-year-old kid and my dad was president of the tavern keepers in Streator, delivering food baskets. I got to go with him a couple of times, and they would stop at needy families’ homes and give them a food basket, a bushel basket. And that always stuck with me. That’s how I really started.”
In 1979, Schmitz and members of his church delivered bushel baskets of food to needy families at Christmas, sparking the idea to form Operation St. Nick. Since then, the charity has evolved into seven separate programs, spending $191,325 on families in Grundy County just in 2019.
“I never dreamed it would turn into what it is today,” he said.
While the giving continues year round, Schmitz said this time of year will always be special.
“Nothing beats Christmas,” Schmitz said. “I’m 78 and I’m still a kid at Christmas. I’m always going to be. ... Operation St. Nick has become part of my life. It’s just a joy. St. Nick is going to be a part of Grundy County and helping families at Christmas forever, I hope, and I think it will be.”