JEFFERSON — The Jefferson County Fair Park Activity Center will be abuzz with activity Tuesday as volunteers unload thousands of toys, food items, winter wear and clothes to be given to needy children and their families at the charity’s annual distribution Wednesday.
This marks the 67th year for Jefferson County Christmas Neighbors, during which time it has made the holiday season brighter for countless struggling families who might not otherwise be able to have a traditional Christmas.
The charity was established in 1952 by the Rev. Clarence “Pop” Wendt, a Methodist pastor and county probation officer from Lake Mills. Initially serving the Jefferson area, the charity rapidly expanded to assist needy families from throughout the county through its regular toy giveaway. Later, the charity established its more extensive Adopt-a-Family program.
Heading into this year’s event, President Lorna Lovett and Vice President Jan Tremain said that participation is steady, with a total of 614 families representing 1,731 children signed up this year.
Of these, 448 families were registered for the regular toy program, while 166 families were signed up with the Adopt-A-Family program, through which a business or organization “adopts” a needy family and provides tailored presents for each of the children, a full holiday meal, and whatever extras the donors wish to provide, including Christmas decorations, a tree, additional food items, or even gas and gift cards.
While the regular distribution takes place at the Jefferson County fairgrounds, donors to the Adopt-A-Family program hand-deliver their gifts to their chosen family.
Lovett and Tremain, who have headed up Christmas Neighbors for the past five years, said that the effort involves a tremendous amount of work on the part of hundreds of volunteers, but it is also tremendously rewarding.
“Every year as I sit at the check-in table, I hear from moms who are in tears, saying, ‘Without this, my kids would not have Christmas.”
Even though the scale of the charity has changed since its inception, Tremain said, the goal remains the same.
As Pop Wendt said when he started the organization, “Every child should know Christmas.”
Tremain noted that many of the recipients have parents working, but they are not able to make ends meet.
Lovett and Tremain said that the charity relies on volunteers not just to provide donations and to set up on the day of distribution, but to keep the whole operation running throughout the year.
On top of the organization’s board, which coordinates the effort year-round, the charity has 26 telephone volunteers, including Spanish-language interpreters, during the sign-up period. In addition, three volunteers focus solely on matching families for “adoption.”
Three area high schools have taken on significant roles in helping with the collection and set-up and providing assistance on distribution day.
Jefferson High School has held a massive food drive in conjunction with Christmas Neighbors, which has been going on for decades. Jefferson also sends numerous students to assist with the set-up and to help families and translate during distribution.
Johnson Creek and Waterloo high schools also have begun sending volunteers, providing invaluable assistance to the program, whose volunteers otherwise tend to be senior citizens. In addition, eighth-graders from St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Jefferson will also lend a hand.
“Every year, we are just amazed at how much people donate,” Tremain said.
“We are so incredibly grateful for this generosity, from people giving of their time, money and talents to make Christmas bright for others,” Lovett said.
The organization is an incredible success every year thanks to the dedication of those community contributors, the organization heads said, noting also that the program has continued to build on the very strong foundation established by its founder and early organizers.
“Pop Wendt would be so proud, and so would Helen Stowe,” Lovett said.
Stowe, who ran the organization before Tremain and Lovett came on board, was a volunteer for Christmas Neighbors from 1969 to 2014, chairing the organization from 1988 until she retired in 2014.
Set-up will run throughout the day Tuesday. Distribution day volunteers arrive at 8 a.m. Wednesday and the distribution itself runs from 8:30 a.m. through 4 p.m.
On the day of distribution, Jefferson High School’s Latino Club and the Johnson Creek High School Spanish Club will provide interpreters for Spanish-speaking families.
Even with thousands of items already set for distribution, the organization always has use for more, and donations are accepted through the day of distribution.
Volunteers always shop for gifts well ahead of the day of distribution, making sure there are a range of toys and gifts for every age range so everyone should be able to find something they want. However, those who wish to donate toys or other items still can do so.
Most needed items at this point include cereal, peanut butter and other shelf-stable foods; wrapping paper, clear tape; clothes and winter wear, especially waterproof mittens and gloves, the coordinators said
Even after the day of distribution, anyone wishing to donate to Christmas Neighbors may do so at any time.
Monetary donations in any amount are always welcome and can be sent to Jefferson County Christmas Neighbors at P.O. Box 177, Jefferson, WI, 53549. There is a Paypal link on the organization’s “donate” page on Facebook.