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'Here for you': Labor, Chamber of Commerce team up for families at 41st annual Children’s Christmas party

Volunteers at Children's Christmas Party for low-income families bring food to a family's car at the Midwest Food Bank.
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
Volunteers at Children's Christmas Party for low-income families bring food Saturday to a family's car at the Midwest Food Bank.

For the 41st year, the Bloomington-Normal Trades and Labor Assembly and the McLean County Chamber of Commerce hosted their annual Children’s Christmas party for low-income families on Saturday.

Santa and Mrs. Claus waving to children in their cars at the 41st annual Children's Christmas Party at the Midwest Food Bank.
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
Santa and Mrs. Claus waving to children in their cars at the 41st annual Children's Christmas Party at the Midwest Food Bank.

Retired member of Laborers Local 362 Mike Matejka has been there since the first event in 1982. Matejka said they helped about 700 children that first year, and this year, that number has grown to more than 1,800 children.

Each family received a box of toys that were age appropriate for their children, a food basket and a ham or turkey. At the end of the drive-thru line, Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus were there to wave to the children.

Matejka said his favorite part of putting together the Children’s Christmas party every year is seeing children and parents smiling.

“That parent then gets that reassurance that they've got the community at their back. I think that's what's important," he said.

The Children’s Christmas party used to be a literal party at Bloomington High School with games and activities, said Matejka. But because of COVID, organizers switched to a drive-thru distribution at the Midwest Food Bank in 2020 and have been doing it that way ever since.

Serving the community

President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Charlie Moore has been helping with the event for the past 15 years or so.

President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Charlie Moore.
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Charlie Moore.

“From an employment standpoint, unemployed or underemployed, families just generally need help," Moore said. "To come together and to help them spread some additional joy to their holiday that they might not otherwise get to have is truly gratifying.”

Both Moore and Matejka said the event started in 1982 because of the economic recession and employment crisis. Matejka said during that time in Bloomington-Normal it was obvious that there were going to be a lot of families in need, so he wanted to find a way to serve his community.

Kimmy Schoebein, volunteer ambassador for the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, shared Matejka’s sentiment about wanting to find a way to serve the community.

“This has become part of my holiday tradition,” said Schoebein. “I get to come out and just really help put the smiles on everybody's faces as they're picking up their gifts. But most importantly, it puts a smile on my face, and helps me find my holiday joy.”

Working together

Schoebein said all the volunteers know what to do and they work really well together.

“There is absolutely nothing challenging about volunteering at this event,” said Shoebein. “We get [the family’s] number, and we fill their cars and out the door they go. And we know that we brightened somebody's day.”

Mike Matejka helping a volunteer find a box of toys for a family at the Midwest Food Bank.
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
Mike Matejka helping a volunteer find a box of toys for a family at the Midwest Food Bank.

Moore added that with the growing numbers of families each year, finding the financial resources to make the event possible has been more difficult.

Despite that challenge, Moore said, “We use all local businesses to purchase the toys, and several of the businesses are very kind to provide discounts or opportunities to help make sure that we can get the most product or gifts for the children.”

“You realize that the exterior of this community may look incredibly prosperous, but there's also a lot of folks that are just having a hard time getting by,” said Matejka. “The community is here for you.”

Emily Bollinger is a graduate assistant at WGLT, focused on photography, videography and other digital content. They're also a graduate student at Illinois State University's School of Communication.
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