For nearly 20 years, a local non-profit has been helping to make Christmases for financially struggling families a little brighter. Toy Express, an organization that serves Chicago's western suburbs, collects new, unwrapped gifts at local fire departments to be offered to families on financial assistance in DuPage County.
Fire departments serve as drop off points for the presents, which are then collected and brought to a donated storefront. Parents can then make appointments to come to the store to pick out toys for their kids.
"From the very beginning, they thought families would be interested in being able to choose from the gifts donated—whatever sparked interest in their little one," said Cindy Bokhart, who, along with her husband, has volunteered with Toy Express for more than 15 years.
The event is kicked off by a parade in which participating fire departments escort a volunteer dressed as Santa to the storefront to greet children.
Dave Zalesiak, a fire marshal with the Tri-State Fire Protection District has played the part of Santa for more than 15 years.
"[My favorite part of the day] is when Santa gets off the firetruck, and there’s children running to him with smiles and telling him they love him and have been waiting for him all year," said Zalesiak, who said it really touches him the way the children still believe in Santa.
Over the years, the organization has collected $75,000 - $100,000 worth of gifts that have been distributed to more than 25,000 children in DuPage County.
"We're in desperate need of toys this year or cash donations," said Zalesiak.
Staff members of local social service agencies, such as Love Christian Clearing House in Clarendon Hills, take names of families who are living below the poverty level. Starting in October, the staff begin calling families to see if they are in need of help at Christmas. Phone numbers of needy families are then given to Toy Express, and volunteers like Chris Bokhart call the families to schedule appointments for the families to come in to "shop."
For the past five years the storefront location for Toy Express has been at the Lake Hinsdale Commons shopping plaza at the corner of 63rd Street and Kingery Highway in Willowbrook.
"[Toy Express] was started to help out the children living in our communities—our neighbors, our friends, suffering through tough times right now," said Bokhart. He said the effect of the tough times is being seen across DuPage County.
"Donations are down massively. Two years ago we had $100,000 worth of donations. Last year, it was $65,000, but it's too early to say whether we can rebound or not," said Bokhart. "Our shelves are woefully thin for gifts for young girls—those [aged] four to eight and nine. We need dolls."
The idea for Toy Express was spearheaded by a former Darien resident in 1990, who had volunteered with several toy drives. Naomi Little realized that very little of the toys collected stayed in the Western suburbs. With the help of the Tri-State, Darien-Woodridge, Hinsdale, Clarendon Hills and Downers Grove fire departments, she began collecting gifts that would specifically benefit residents of Chicago's western suburbs.
Little has since passed away, but the effort continues to grow. Toy Express now has 22 volunteers and 14 collection sites, including one at the Burr Rige Police Department. One firefighter from each participating fire department volunteers to help the effort and make sure donations make it to Toy Express.
Collection boxes (click here for collection box locations) stay out until Dec. 27. Bokhart said many donations will come in after Christmas.
"People find that rather than standing in lines to return something to a store, sometimes it's better and easier to donate it somewhere where it can be used," said Bokhart.
Bokhart said he and his wife found out about the effort through their son, who volunteered to help as an eagle scout. He said one of the most inspiring parts of volunteering is seeing people give back who previously had been helped.
"Somebody you helped in one year calls up the next year and says, 'I'm [back] on my feet. I want to volunteer and help others.' Every year we get someone like that," said Bokhart.