On the last Saturday before Finals Week, when many students were cramming at Milner Library or finding creative ways to procrastinate, a special group of Holiday Helpers were taking time to make children’s wishes come true this holiday season.

Student volunteers hosted four holiday parties Saturday, giving out presents to more than 200 children from the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal, the Center for Youth and Family Solutions, Western Avenue Community Center, and Unity Community Center. It was the culminating event for the Holiday Helper program, run through the Dean of Students Office’s Leadership and Service team.

Holiday Helper party

Children from the Center for Youth and Family Solutions at Saturday’s Holiday Helper party.

This was senior early childhood education major Danielle Flack’s fourth year as a Holiday Helper, and her second as a party coordinator. Flack, along with senior Nellie Romanowski and sophomore A.J. Galli, planned Saturday’s party for around 75 children from the Center for Youth and Family Solutions (formerly Catholic Charities), held at the Circus Room in Bone Student Center.

The kids are great, but the best part is interacting with their families, said Flack.

“They’re just really thankful,” the Freeport native said. “There’s no better feeling than that.”

Holiday Helper is a multistep program, with students volunteering at different stages to help children in need. In November, students (or student groups) can “adopt” a child, buying gifts based on the child’s Top 3 wants and needs (up to $40) and bringing them to the Leadership and Service office. Last week, volunteers gathered to wrap all the presents, which were given to the children at Saturday’s Holiday Helper parties.

Those parties involve a lot of planning too. Flack, Romanowski, and Galli recruited volunteers and doled out tasks, gathered a supply list, and planned holiday-themed party activities such as Snowman Bowling and ornament and cookie decorating.

Holiday Helper volunteers pose together

The volunteers for one of Saturday’s four Holiday Helper parties.

Galli, an elementary education major from Joliet, volunteered a lot while in high school but wasn’t able to find an outlet for service he liked during his freshman year. He’s now a resident adviser, or RA, in Watterson Towers, and this year another RA mentioned the Holiday Helper program.

“It’s exactly what I was looking for,” Galli said. “Working with kids is something that’s right up my alley.”

Romanowski is a member of a service sorority, Epsilon Sigma Alpha, so she’s always on the lookout for volunteer opportunities. The Palatine native liked Holiday Helper because she got to interact with the children, not just raise money. While individual students adopted individual kids, Romanowski’s sorority ended up adopting 10 children.

“You can do it any way you want,” Romanowski said.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@ilstu.edu.