The spirit of giving - Christmas Cheer fundraising kicks off

Members of St. James Lutheran Church and Evangelism Committee are pictured presenting a $1,251 check for Christmas Cheer to Shawna Lebeck of Butler County Visions of Well Being. From left are Deb McWhirter, Susan Langfritz, Shawna Lebeck, Daleth Pothast and Connie Wix. (Bethany Carson photo)
Bethany Carson

As autumn leaves begin to fall, Butler County Visions of Well Being is celebrating the kickoff of their annual Christmas Cheer project with their first major donation of the season.

     Members of St. James Lutheran Church and Evangelism Committee in Allison presented a $1,251 check to Butler County Visions of Well Being President Shawna LeBeck at Wilder Park on Sept. 17 to kick off fundraising efforts.

     “Christmas is a time of giving, sharing, love and peace, and what better way to [express that] than helping fellow community members,” said Connie Wix of the Evangelism Committee.

     On average, 200 Butler County households benefit from Christmas Cheer each year.

     “It wouldn’t be possible without all the community support…” said Lebeck. “We’re starting [fundraising] earlier this year than normally, as we know it’s a tough year for a lot of churches, organizations and businesses, a lot of the ones who support us.”

     Christmas Cheer brings meals to families in need during the holiday season.

     While in the past, Christmas Cheer packages started with a turkey and included the fixings for a holiday meal, sometimes younger people didn’t know how to fix a turkey, and a whole turkey was often too much meat for the elderly. So, the project now offers easy-to-cook meals in Christmas Cheer packages, including hamburger from Orly’s and a variety of foods purchased from the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, including: Hamburger Helper, canned tuna, boxed meals, fruit and vegetables, cereal, pancake mix and syrup. There are a variety of items for breakfast, lunch and supper – and sometimes even some cookies. The packages vary in size to accommodate household sizes.

     And depending on the year and the donations received, the packages also may include little extras such as paper towels, toilet paper, laundry soap and bar soap. An effort is made to purchase everything additional to what is purchased through the Northeast Iowa Food Bank from local businesses.

     Each package also comes with Butler Bucks, which can be used at local businesses, including the grocery store, to meet other needs of the recipients.

     “We know a lot of people in Butler County, a lot of the elderly, are on fixed incomes, and it’s challenging for them. They have to make choices between food and medicine, and it’s difficult to see people in that position. And there are families with young children in the area that have had a particularly rough year,” said LeBeck.

     Unemployment rates have been low in recent years, but COVID-19’s impact on the economy has caused some people’s hours to be cut. Others have lost jobs.

     “A lot of families have been impacted in some sort of way,” LeBeck said. “Maybe they were quarantined due to exposure and were not getting paid. We know there have been strains on families.”

     While core services are offered to families in need, they’re not all-inclusive, and don’t meet everyone’s needs. According to LeBeck, there are many families on the fringe who don’t qualify for assistance, but don’t make much money over the cutoff for assistance.

     “We try to look into what resources and services are out there to raise community support to fill the gaps. It’s important for us to do that, when we see gaps to fill,” Lebeck said. “The community has embraced what we try to do, and recognizes that it’s important to help friends and neighbors.”

     While St. James Lutheran Church normally fundraises for Christmas Cheer with drawings and raffles, fundraising efforts looked different this year. Due to COVID-19, the congregation has been meeting at a hangar at the Allison Airport on Sundays.

     “It allows us to come together and feel like a community. Some choose to sit in their cars and listen to the radio, or take out their gator or come in a golf cart,” said Evangelism Committee Member Deb McWhirter.

     Recently, a couple flew in from Clarion for the airport services. Other members of the congregation attend the services through Zoom.

     A Wall of Christmas Cheer was set up at the airport with envelopes tacked to the wall/board labeled from $1 to $50. People drove out to the airport to choose envelopes in accordance with the amount they wanted to donate. As a thank you to those who donated, the evangelism committee included eight gift cards for $25 in random envelopes for givers to receive.

     The fundraiser proved to be a huge success with minimal costs. One of the gift card recipients even turned around and donated the $25 received as additional funds toward Christmas Cheer.

     “It was a very different way to do it. … It was a brilliant idea,” said LeBeck, speaking of the Wall of Christmas Cheer.

     Members of the St. James evangelism committee that spearheaded fundraising efforts for the congregation include Susan Langfritz, Deb McWhirter, Daleth Pothast, Connie Wix, Bethani Shaull, Lisa Beadle, Laney Beadle, Amy Seimens and Pastor Kyle Barton.

     “We want to reach out beyond our own church congregation to help other community funds,” said McWhirter.

     The St. James congregation has been a faithful supporter of Christmas Cheer for well over 15 years.

     “It’s local, and it’s nice to offer support close to home,” said Wix.

     According to LeBeck, Christmas Cheer itself may also look a little different this year due to COVID-19. The event usually is held at the courthouse with the help of many volunteers including students from local schools who package everything. And the Secondary Roads Department generally helps unload the truck(s) of supplies. Recipients come in to pick up the packages of food.

     But with social distancing guidelines in place, organization may work a little differently, and volunteers may end up loading packages into cars arriving at staggered intervals, since there are a lot of elderly, disabled individuals, and families with little kids – and it may not be advisable to have too many people in close quarters at one time.

     “We’ve got to make sure we deliver safely this year,” LeBeck said. “Things may change up, but it will still happen, and we need community support.”

     Families interested in receiving Christmas Cheer packages will send in applications in November, but fundraising efforts start now. The total cost of the Christmas Cheer program is generally $14,000 to $16,000 per year, depending on grocery prices and how many families are served.

     LeBeck told the story of one local recipient who was given a Christmas Cheer package, and the next year gave back to help others.

     “They were still living paycheck to paycheck, but felt they were making it, so they wanted to give back,” LeBeck said.

     The tricky part of fundraising efforts for LeBeck is that the order for food is usually placed the end of November or in early December, when donations are still coming in. But the county has always come through, with small businesses giving generous donations, and Sunday School classes pooling their change to help others.

     “It’s a worthy cause to help families in need,” said McWhirter.

     Donations may be sent to Visions of Well Being at PO Box 744, Allison, IA 50602, with Christmas Cheer written in the memo line.

     “This meets needs in the local community that people might have not even been aware of,” McWhirter said.


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