A few days before Thanksgiving, Walt Meder phones me as he does every once in a while with the latest of his ideas to make the world a little better. The 90-year-old Arlington Heights resident makes his usual donations to the Salvation Army and other charities in the suburbs, but he really likes to help strangers who don't see it coming.
"My favorite thing is when I go to Panera and I see a young man with two or three kids," Meder once told me, explaining how he'll pay for the family's meal anonymously. "He's looking around and he never figures it's that old (guy) sitting there. That's the best part. I love that."
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His passion for helping others grew from the small kindnesses he received as a boy, Meder says. Having to drop out of school and hold several jobs to help support his German immigrant family during the Depression, Meder remembers small gifts, a 50-cent tip and even kind deeds from strangers. A butcher by trade, Meder eventually got a job in the insurance business, where he was the top salesman for years. But he still has a soft spot for kids who could use a little kindness tossed their way.
"The Daily Herald should sponsor a toy drive," Meder says. He figures the paper could get readers to donate money, which could be used to buy toys at a discount from advertisers. To get the ball rolling, Meder donates a check with his name on it Wednesday afternoon, and then slips in some cash anonymously.
And that's how one man inspired the Daily Herald's inaugural Hope for the Holidays campaign, which will provide gifts for the children at WINGS, the Palatine-based not-for-profit agency that provides emergency shelter, temporary housing, education and job help, counseling and other services for homeless and abused women and children.
"It really clicked into place," says M. Eileen Brown, the Daily Herald's assistant vice president and director of strategic marketing and innovation, who turned Meder's idea into a reality. "A caring reader wants to give back to the community, so he calls the local newspaper for help with his efforts. And WINGS is the perfect organization to assist this time of year."
Founded as a shelter for victims of domestic violence, WINGS actually could be considered a children's charity.
"We always have more kids than adults," notes Rebecca Darr, executive director of WINGS. At any given time, the agency is helping 80 to 100 families, and the boys and girls in those families.
"Most of these kids have seen quite a lot of violence and people treating each other badly," Darr says. "We all want the kids to have a special time this time of year regardless of what holiday they are celebrating."
Brown says the Daily Herald will print a special thank-you ad featuring the names of donors, as well as a list of the gifts purchased. By accepting donations of money instead of toys, the Daily Herald will be able to purchase specific gifts on the WINGS list. While toys always are popular, other gifts might be better for teenagers or special cases, Darr says. She remembers how someone once donated a locket and the little girl who got it was so happy she included a photo of herself wearing that piece of jewelry with her thank-you note, Darr says.
Some of the donations might be used to buy new stuffed animals. "We want to give them something to hold on to," Darr says. Some of the toys will be held back so that the children at WINGS can use special "WINGS dollars" to buy those gifts for their siblings and others, Darr says. As Meder knows, giving can be more rewarding than receiving.
"Our No. 1 goal is to break the cycle and put ourselves out of business," Darr says. Showing kids that others care is a great start.
"Our sincere appreciation to Walt and the Daily Herald for doing this for our children," Darr says. "We couldn't do our work without angels like him."
Just as strangers made an impression on a young Meder, he is doing the same for a new generation of kids.
"They never forget the kindness," Darr says.
Meder, a World War II veteran who often wears his bright red VFW Post 981 cap, talks about how he and his wife, Louise (they'll celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary in February), have been blessed every time they do good deeds for others.
"I like doing it. I'm doing it for myself," Meder says of his latest campaign.
"He always says, 'The more I give, the more comes back,'" says his son Bob Meder, 58, who also lives in Arlington Heights. "He believes in that, and he loves helping people."
Even when he ran his butcher shop, Walt Meder would shave off slices to donate to the hungry. "He's always been like that," his son says.
Meder "is going to make the holidays a lot happier for a number of local children and teens," Brown says. "We are delighted to be a part of that. It's just a wonderful example of how we can all work together to make our community a better place to live."
How to donate
To donate money to the toy campaign, send tax-deductible checks made out to WINGS -- Daily Herald Hope for the Holidays, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006-0280.