DANVILLE – This holiday season marks the 20th year Project Success of Vermilion County has been fulfilling the Christmas wishes of a couple hundred area children and teens who are in need.
Project Success’ Christmas Wish List program kicks off this week, and the after school program has more children and teens than ever before – a total of 254 – on its list.
More children and teens are on the Wish List than in years past because Project Success received a grant last year to expand its after school enrichment programming and now serves more than 350 additional children in seven new locations in the county. Project Success is in every school district in the county, except Bismarck and Armstrong-Potomac.
Project Success Assistant Director Kimberly David remembers the Christmas Wish List program, which started out small with only a dozen children in 1999, was initiated by a call from the Commercial-News asking what the children in the program needed.
The Project Success staff realized some of the families of the children in the program had basic needs, such as clothing, coats, shoes and hygiene items, and turned to community members and local businesses for help.
In the last two decades, the number of children and teens in the program and their needs have grown exponentially.
“The program expanded last year, and we have had to cut off the number of families we can help with this year’s Wish List,” David said.
“We’re serving over 600 kids at 15 sites,” Program Director Abby Boen said. “We probably could serve more kids if we had the resources.”
“We‘re not just helping at Christmas, we’re helping all year long with academics and support,” David said. “We have site coordinators who take boxes of food to some of our families.”
Boen agreed. “That’s what sets us apart.”
Community members and local businesses will purchase the bulk of the gifts to be opened by the 254 Project Success children and teens that are in extreme need in Vermilion County and are not being served by any other holiday program in the area.
A child or teen is eligible to be placed on the Wish List if he or she is enrolled in one of Project Success’ after school programs; meets income guidelines; and is not already receiving holiday help from another organization, such as the Salvation Army, United Way or Santas Anonymous in Westville.
Not only does the Project Success child or teen receive gifts, but also any school-age or younger siblings in the home.
“We do the whole family as long as they’re birth to school age,” David said. “A lot of our families have multiple kids in our program.”
Children and teens, however, may not be on the Wish List two years in a row so other children may be helped.
“We do not serve them two years in a row unless they lost their house to a fire or had a death of a family member,” David said.
Preparations for the annual Christmas Wish List program begin early, with referrals being sought for the children and teens with the most need in Project Success’ programs.
The Christmas Wish List program wouldn’t be able to help as many children and teens in the county if it weren’t for the generosity of several Danville businesses and their employees and other community members, Boen said.
“They’ve been emailing us and calling us looking for the list,” she said.
Some longtime business supporters include the employees at Danville School District 118, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Envirox, Walgreens Accounting and the Veteran Affairs Illiana Healthcare System that select many of the children to help. Some businesses select up to 50 children or shop for several families. So far, 85 to 90 children have been selected by local businesses this month.
“We have a lot of places where employees will take a kid or two,” David said.
“We definitely need a lot of help this year,” she added.
Each child or teen on the Wish List is assigned a number. The list gives the child’s or teen’s gender but doesn’t provide names or any other confidential information. Clothing and shoe sizes are listed as well as a toy for younger children or another gift item if it is for a teen.
“We will continuously update the list on our Facebook page and have it so it can be shared,” Boen said.
David added that the list is far-reaching.
“People from out-of-state send us gifts,” she said.
David said many people might be surprised by what the children and teens ask for as gifts.
“The kids ask for things you wouldn’t think of, like socks and underwear,” she said. “Several families asked for warm blankets, and a lot of kids ask for shoes and boots because they need to keep their feet warm.
“Many children ask for books because their families can’t afford to buy them their own books,” David said. “A lot of these parents are working two, three jobs and they can’t afford gifts.”
“We see a lot of requests for basic hygiene items,” she added. “We can never get enough of them. That’s what we use as stocking stuffers.”
Project Success’ Chief Executive Officer Lucas Seilhymer agreed. “Not everyone has the same standard of living. So we hope we can step in and fill that need.”
One special wish this year is for a gift that has a higher price tag than what is usually requested, but it would mean the world to one area teen.
“We have a teen boy whose bike was stolen and that’s his only transportation,” Boen said.
Two “hot” items this year that would be a treat for any teenager to receive are hoodies and a Hydro Flask or any insulated stainless steel water bottle, David said.
“So many high school kids like hoodies,” she said. “We can’t get enough hoodies.”
Community members who purchase gift items for a child or teen are asked not to wrap them when they are dropped off at Project Success’ headquarters at 917 N. Walnut St. This year’s deadline is Dec. 11.
David, Boen and other staff members take special care to make sure the gift items are evened out if there is more than one child or teen in a family receiving gifts.
David and Boen try to make sure each child or teen receives a pair of shoes or boots, two warm outfits, a coat, one or two toys, hygiene items and a stocking filled with stocking stuffers.
Then the hours and hours of gift wrapping begins. Eventually, the halls and offices of Project Success’ headquarters will be filled with gifts.
All of the wrapped gifts are placed in 30-gallon trash bags and tagged with the child’s or teen’s name and assigned number. The bags of gifts used to be delivered to each family across the county, but that was discontinued several years ago when the Christmas Wish List started approaching 200 children.
“We call the families once the gifts are ready for pick up, and we’ll help them to their car with it,” David said, adding that the pickups will start the week before Christmas around Dec. 16.
Boen said her favorite part of the Christmas Wish List program is when the gifts are picked up.
“We all cry at some point during the pickup times,” she said. “It’s the one project I’m most proud of that we do every year.
“It’s the one project that makes a difference,” she said. “The site coordinators tell us how the kids are so excited to show off what they got for Christmas.”
David said she is appreciative of the generosity of the community members who make the Christmas Wish List program a continued success.
“It’s neat to see the community come together and establish new relationships,” she said.
Seilhymer gave all the credit to David and Boen for making the Christmas Wish List program a success every year.
“This program has been incredibly well run,” he said. “To see the program grow from 12 to 250 is impressive.
“They know what they’re doing and they’ve been doing it for so long,” he said of David and Boen. “Thanks to my great staff, it’s not stressful at all.”