'Divine chaos': Christmas Cheer Foundation packs, delivers 15,000 meals


Phil Calabrese, who co-founded what is now the Christmas Cheer Foundation about 35
years ago, called a Dec. 25 packing session that resulted in 15,000 meals packed and delivered as “divine chaos” and even “a miracle.”

Calabrese is also Christmas Cheer’s secretary and treasurer, and as he led more than 100 volunteers in an ecumenical prayer that asked for blessings on those celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa, he reflected on something he heard years before: “If you think the best, you should expect the best.”

Along with meals, volunteers packed and delivered dry goods — fruit, cookies and a bun — and books for children between 4 and 12 years old, Calabrese said, adding, “our primary purpose for doing this is to serve people in need.”

The foundation serves dozens of suburbs and city locations, including Des Plaines, Elmwood Park, Franklin Park, Harwood Heights, Northlake, Oak Park, Park Ridge, River Forest, River Grove and Schiller Park.

Calabrese and board member Clarinda Valentine said Christmas Cheer would start planning for 2019 just after New Year’s.

Christmas Cheer President Lucy Dalbis said she’s been volunteering in different capacities for about 25 years and has seen the foundation grow from 1,000 meals. Now, 15 companies provide donations.

“In today’s world, people can be hostile,” Dalbis said. “Here, people know that you care about those in need.”

Some volunteers, like Chicago resident Yolanda Marsh, came with family.

This year, Marsh volunteered at the sign-in station. It was Christmas Cheer’s first year in Dominican University’s Parmer Hall, and Marsh said the new location was “easier to maneuver” with the route station for volunteer drivers closer to the entrance.

Marsh said she and her son enjoy packing the dry goods, and she gifts-wraps books along with others from her church, a far South Side congregation that ministers to the deaf population. Her husband and daughter were in the kitchen, helping prepare hams and potato salad.

Volunteering is both “fulfilling” and “fun,” Marsh said, and a favorite part is “getting to see people I’ve worked with before on other Christmas Cheers and recognizing them.”

She mentioned a family from California who visit relatives in Illinois. Marsh and the family work together, sharing “inside jokes” and a “connection.”

Debbie Cullen from Mount Prospect was also volunteering with her family, and said her brother was one of the original volunteers. Her family helped pack the cups of corn the Saturday before Christmas at “corn day,” which Cullen called “bustling.”

On Dec. 25, they were back, handing out gifts to the volunteer drivers with many a “Merry Christmas.”

Valentine said activities such as corn day help the Dec. 25 delivery run smoother. “It’s a process; this is the culmination,” she said.

Rita Williams of Oak Park packed meals alongside her friend, and said she also delivered meals before.

“What I like about this is it is books and toys, not just food,” she said.

Jacob Crump, an elder in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, volunteered with other missionaries who are serving for two years in the Midwest.

Before he helped with dry goods, packing and cleaning, Crump said he’d stuffed envelopes with Christmas Cheer information in October.

For Crump, it’s a way to start 2019 off right, and a way to focus on his faith.

“Something I like to do for New Years is setting goals to help people out; helping out your body by working out; helping the community and helping your family,” he said.

Cullen said volunteering was also a way to celebrate the Christmas season, which lasts through part of January.

“Christmas just starts today,” she said. “It sets the tone for the next few weeks.”

Each volunteer remembered past Christmases: special meals that remind them of loved ones; sledding; Christmas trees; favorite toys.

With its food, presents, and meeting a neighbor’s need, “this is the Christmas spirit embodied here,” Cullen said.

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