Volunteers give families a hand up

No matter what your religious beliefs, every child knows the legend of Santa. If a child has been good all year, he will wake up on Christmas morning to find gifts under the tree. Too many of us forget that Santa can’t afford to visit everyone, but it is something that Katie Minott, 36 thinks about a lot these days.

“Imagine you are in second grade and a kid in your class turns to you to ask what you got from Santa,” says Minott, 36 of Naperville. “When you tell him Santa didn’t come to your house, he starts to wonder what you did wrong.”

In 2009, Minott, was a new mother to twin boys. Feeling blessed, she jumped on an opportunity to give back to the community through Gift Mart, a one-day store offering toys to families with financial difficulties the East Aurora school district. The program was originally started by Community Christian Church, commonly known as the Yellow Box Church in Naperville.

The experience was so incredible that the following year, Minott stepped up to take a leadership role in the program at her church, Wheatland Salem Methodist Church on Naperville’s south side. Instead of helping another East Aurora school, Gift Mart Wheatland Salem supports families in District 204 schools.

“It is 204 families and kids giving back to 204 families and kids,” says Minott, co-chair of Gift Mart Wheatland Salem.

The two elementary schools were selected based on their financial needs as they each have a significant amount of students on the free and reduced lunch program. Qualifying families, which include about 500 students, are invited by Gift Mart through the school social workers. “We are not giving them a handout. We are giving them a hand up,” says Minott.

Knowing that there are many organizations to fill the basic needs of clothing and food, Gift Mart transforms the school gym into a well-stocked toy store. While some programs offer the parents a wrapped gender appropriate gift, Gift Mart allows the parents pick something off their child’s wish list.

“The parents are able to maintain dignity by shopping and choosing their own gifts,” says Minott’s co-chair Pam Blachard, 44 of Naperville. Every toy is priced at $2 and parents may purchase two to three toys for each elementary student.

All proceeds from the sale go back to the students’ school to be used for items like smart boards or other educational items. “Their monetary contribution allows parents to support programs in their school and in turn give back,” says Blanchard, who has been involved in Gift Mart since 2011.

While parents are shopping, their children are taken to another room to do crafts, play games and have a snack. In order to keep the gifts a secret, Gift Mart provides a gift wrapping service for families. All donations are provided by the members of Wheatland Salem and its surrounding community.

Gift Mart relies on the generous donations of toys for their success, which can be dropped off at Wheatland Salem or in boxes left at some District 204 schools. Last year, 1,800 toys were donated. Monetary donations go to support the crafts and snack items and Gift Mart is currently looking for a sponsor for the hospitality committee.

Just like Santa’s elves, Minott and Blanchard start planning next year right after Christmas. They meet monthly with more than a dozen committees, school officials and a generous community of sponsors. Now in its fourth year, the program has grown to assist 900 students in three schools, including one in nearby Oswego. This year’s event takes place on Dec. 13.

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To Help


Sign up: to volunteer at http://wheatlandsalem.org

Call: 630-904-1035

Donate: a toy valued at $10 to $20, wrapping paper & tape or a monetary donation.

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