For decades, Illinois State University students, faculty, and staff have provided holiday gifts for local children through the University’s Holiday Helper program. In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and struggling economy, the program has become more important than ever for families in Bloomington-Normal.
“So many individuals in the community have been impacted financially because of the pandemic,” said Blair Canedy, graduate assistant for community service projects at the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CESL). Canedy coordinated the 2020 Holiday Helper program. “For many children in the community, the only gifts they receive this holiday season will be the ones through our program.”
Each year, CESL partners with local organizations to identify children in need. In conjunction with each partnering agency, the children and their families identify personal wants and needs. CESL then asks Illinois State students, faculty, and staff to help sponsor each child by purchasing gifts for them valuing approximately $50.
Narry Kim, events coordinator in the Office of the President, sponsored several children this year on behalf of her office. “We’ve always been enthusiastic about supporting the Holiday Helper program, but I feel we especially didn’t want to miss out this year. I know that during the current COVID-19 pandemic with businesses closing, companies reducing staff, and more people facing unemployment and much tighter budgets, there would be a greater need to help families.”
Lauren Harris, student body president and a senior political science major, sponsored two children. “I sponsored a boy and girl last year, and I wanted to do the same again this year. Understanding the financial restraints I have (and I know many other people have) I considered only sponsoring one child or doing the other alternatives offered this year. But, I really enjoy shopping for others and especially little kids, so I still decided to sponsor a boy and girl again this year.”
Partner agencies in 2020 included Unity Community Center, Boys and Girls Club, the Center for Youth and Family Solutions, Marcfirst, and the Western Avenue Community Center After School Program at Eastview Christian Church.
“We were thrilled to be able to work with a new agency this year, too” said Canedy. “In partnership with The Baby Fold, we offered an Amazon wish list of items that people could purchase and ship to us at CESL. It was a great option for those who weren’t able to commit to the full $50 of sponsoring a child or for those who were not located near campus.”
The wish list items included a variety of health and safety necessities for small children as well as therapeutic toys and puzzles. “We were thrilled to partner with CESL,” said Sam Guillory, director of development at The Baby Fold. “The Holiday Helper program provided so many essentials that will help us ensure the safety and well-being of The Baby Fold’s littlest clients. And the donated sensory toys will help children on the autism spectrum learn to calm and regulate themselves and to connect with others. The donations will definitely have a large impact on children within our programs.”
In 2020, 256 children were sponsored and an additional 291 items were purchased from the virtual wish list. In total, approximately $16,874 was donated to local children by Illinois State University students, faculty, and staff.
While child sponsorship all took place virtually, the pandemic posed a number of challenges to the Holiday Helper program’s gift return process and wrapping event.
“CESL is housed in a small building, and we knew we needed to keep the number of individuals inside the building to a minimum,” said Annie Weaver, Canedy’s supervisor and the assistant director of co-curricular programs at CESL. “So, we decided to offer curbside drop-off for sponsors this year.”
Sponsors parked in a designated spot in the parking lot behind the CESL building and then followed directions on yard signs to text CESL staff. The CESL “elves” wore masks and went to the parking lot to collect the donated gifts.
“The curbside drop-off was a great update for the program,” Weaver said. “A lot of the sponsors were thrilled with how easily and safely they could deliver their gifts.”
Traditionally CESL organizes several Wrap and Pack Parties to wrap the donated gifts. With fewer organizations requesting that the gifts be wrapped this year, and with the need for safety measures and social distancing, CESL instead planned a single wrapping event at Bone Student Center’s Brown Ballroom.
“Then the pandemic struck again,” said Weaver. “New regulations from Governor Pritzker went into effect three days before our wrapping event, and those regulations put a halt to any gathering in Bone Student Center.”
Conversations with staff in the Dean of Students Office soon led to a new plan for gift wrapping. Three rooms were reserved in the Student Services Building, and a limited number of volunteers wrapped/organized gifts at tables that were set up to allow social distancing. Wrapping tables were sanitized between volunteers.
The Holiday Helper program typically culminates in holiday parties with crafts and games at the partner organizations. While those in-person events were canceled for 2020, some of the party cheer still went home with children. Redbirds participating in a CESL September Service Days project packed holiday craft bags for the children, and the bags were distributed with the Holiday Helper gifts.
“The pandemic has certainly forced us to be flexible with all of our co-curricular programs,” said Weaver, “and that was definitely true of Holiday Helper. I’m proud of the way that we were able to adapt as needed, however, keep everyone safe, and still impact the community in such an amazing way.”
Dr. Phyllis McCluskey-Titus, professor in Educational Administration and Foundations, has participated in the Holiday Helper program for several years. “So many people have been affected negatively by this pandemic, so my family has been purposefully looking for opportunities to share what we have. Holiday Helper, since it is associated with Illinois State, is something we look forward to being a part of each year.”
Canedy was excited to coordinate the program again this year, too, even with the pandemic. “The program is an amazing opportunity to spread holiday cheer each year,” she said. “Not only do the gifts bring joy to the children, but being able to include faculty, staff, and students in the process has been such an amazing endeavor. It is both amazing and humbling to be able to host this program during a pandemic.”