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posted: 11/30/2012 10:25 AM

Pack the Gym celebrates Special Olympics, helping others

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For basketball fans interested in helping area families in need, it was a slam dunk.

A standing-room crowd packed the Hubble Middle School gym this week in Warrenville to cheer on the Flying Tigers, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200's Special Olympics basketball team, during their final home game of the season.

In addition to providing a forum to celebrate the athletes, the district's third annual Pack the Gym Night raised $600 through raffle ticket sales to benefit Christmas Sharing, a nonprofit organization that provides food, clothing and toys to struggling families in the district.

Ticket sales doubled from last year, officials said, and boxes of canned goods and other donations lined nearly half of a hallway at Hubble.

The event began in 2010 and allows athletes in Special Olympics, a self-sufficient program supported by fundraisers, grants and donations, to "give back to the community that gives so much to them," district spokeswoman Erica Loiacono said.

Christmas Sharing, formed in 1969 by a district social worker, served more than 1,200 families in 2011. Officials predict there will be a slight decrease in the number of families served at distribution sites Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7 and 8, but nobody's complaining.

"The good news is that our numbers are down a little, but the bad news is we still have many, many families that are part of this program," said Bob Donisch, a co-chairman of Christmas Sharing's steering committee.

Families are identified by district social workers and receive an invitation to shop for age- and gender-appropriate items at one of eight churches in Wheaton or Warrenville. Volunteers still are needed for sorting, packing and distributing items. Preparations to convert churches into makeshift shops will begin next week, Donisch said.

The basketball game is part of a communitywide collection backed by local businesses, agencies and hundreds of volunteers.

"We're always nervous about the numbers and about whether we're going to be able to provide, but every year it's always worked out," said steering committee member Fred Olufs.

His wife Nancy, a retired District 200 teacher, already has started stuffing stockings with her army of volunteers. Last year, the first floor of the couple's Warrenville home was brimming with more than 600 stockings.

"There was no place to sit," Olufs said.

He also volunteers at the Community Baptist Church distribution site in Warrenville.

"Usually, at least once a year, someone will come up to my wife and say something like, 'Thank you so much. If it wasn't for these gifts, we wouldn't be having a Christmas,'" Olufs said.

Meanwhile, students in District 200 schools collect items in unique ways, said Donna Kozica, the district's social work department chairwoman. At Hubble, the grade that raises the most funds during a lunchtime drive receives a visit from Santa and his "rockin' elves," or teachers dressed in costume, she said.

"It really surprises me, the generosity of people and how kids pull together," she said.

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