A week after Thanksgiving, 90-year-old Walt Meder of Arlington Heights strolled into the Daily Herald lobby with a wad of cash in his pants pocket to make good on the dream in his heart.
"The Daily Herald should sponsor a toy drive," proclaimed Meder, who routinely gives to the Salvation Army and other charities but wanted something special to help suburban kids. Meder, a German immigrant who fought for the U.S. during World War II, figured Daily Herald readers would chip in.
Under the direction of M. Eileen Brown, the Daily Herald's assistant vice president and director of strategic marketing and innovation, Meder's fantasy raised more than $30,000 and made the holidays so much brighter 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.
"Holy mackerel!" says Meder, an optimist who confesses that readers were even more generous than he expected. "Geez. That's great. Most people, if you give them a chance, they are pretty good.
"People have hearts, no matter what the economy is. The Americans are probably the best-hearted people there are," Meder says.
"I knew that people are generous and I did expect a good showing from people, I really did. But I didn't expect so many envelopes," says Karen DiGiulio, a Daily Herald executive assistant given the job of opening all that mail. She would arrive each morning, hang up her coat and check her mailbox.
"I was never disappointed," DiGiulio says. "A little overwhelmed some days but never disappointed."
In addition to the sheer volume, DiGiulio was impressed with the handwritten notes that accompanied so many donations.
"It was overwhelming emotionally for me," says DiGiulio, who read many notes that added, "I wish it could be more."
"What a wonderful soul you must be," an Elgin donor says about Meder.
"Thank you to the kind gentleman for reminding us that kindness is never wasted," reads a note from a Batavia family.
"I'm touched by his story, too," says Louise Meder, who not only donated to the cause but will celebrate her 69th wedding anniversary with her husband and Hope for the Holidays founder on Feb. 9.
"What Mr. Meder has done is absolutely fabulous, and I am blessed to be able to contribute!" writes an Elk Grove woman.
"I would like to send more, however my wife is in an assisted living home with advanced dementia and my discretionary spending has stopped," pens a Rolling Meadows man. "Merry Christmas."
Another says simply, "I know how it feels because I was one of those mothers."
A group of suburban woman who call themselves the Bunco Beauties donated a tidy sum. So did the Jazzercise class from Hoffman Estates and Streamwood. A group of Northwest Community Hospital employees donated receipts from their annual holiday party auction.
"It's completely amazing," says Rebecca Darr, executive director of WINGS, who notes that Hope for the Holidays did so much for children whose wish lists often consist of basic needs such as underwear and winter gear.
"This year we were able to give them more than underwear," Darr says.
"I bought them three little presents I could afford. They know that's all Mommy could do," says a 31-year-old mother of a 12-year-old boy, a 3-year-old boy and a baby girl who ended up in WINGS emergency shelter. Now the family is living in WINGS transitional housing and the mom has a job as a cashier. Saying she is grateful for the money "you all raised for us," the mom says her kids were able to receive "the things they want and need instead of just the things I can afford."
Meijer in Rolling Meadows gave $1,000 to Hope for the Holidays plus discounts on the merchandise. The Toy Emporium in Park Ridge gave WINGS shoppers discounts on educational toys.
Some of the new toys are items that are a given for many suburban children.
"We have a lot of kids who didn't have bicycles," Darr says, noting they do now. Some of the money was spent on welcome baskets that include a towel, robe, pajamas, teddy bear and other personal items for kids who often arrive at the Safe House with just the clothes on their backs.
"Because of Walt and his generosity, we were able to help a deaf child communicate with their mother," says Darr, explaining how Hope for the Holidays paid for all the electronics needed to grant that request. "It's not a toy, but to a deaf child, the wish to communicate with their mother is better than any gift."
For people weary of news about shootings and fiscal cliffs, Hope for the Holidays was a gift unto itself.
"It's much easier to be nice than not to be nice," says Meder, who grew up during the Depression, worked all sorts of small jobs as a boy with his siblings to keep the family afloat and knows the value of money.
"The guy who gives $5, sometimes that means more than the guy who gives $500," says Meder, who still remembers the year he received a whopping 50-cent tip on his newspaper delivery route. He figures the generous Daily Herald readers not only made the holidays brighter for a bunch of down-on-their-luck moms and kids, but it planted the seeds of kindness and generosity in a lot of young hearts.
"People remember good things," Meder says.
The only regret Darr has is that donors can't fully appreciate what their gifts meant.
"These people don't get to see what we get to see," Darr says. "The smiles on these faces."