A pair of jesters greeted guests at the Schaumburg/Hoffman Estates Rotary Club fundraiser Saturday night, handing them colorful beads and masks.
Yet, while this Mardi Gras bash had a playfulness about it, its fundraising mission was dead serious.
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Held at the Meadows Club in Rolling Meadows and drawing nearly 300 supporters, this is the Rotary club's major fundraiser. Chairman John Curry of Schaumburg, and co-chairs Eileen Higginbotham of Palatine and Colette Gibens of Elgin hoped to raise more than $75,000 from the event.
They earmark $50,000 for community projects, including $25,000 for scholarships and the rest for grants to GiGi's Playhouse, Clearbrook and the Kenneth Young Center. As well, this year completes their $250,000 pledge to Alexian Brothers Children's Hospital.
There is another important project that Rotary helps with, and Jim Britton, principal of Hoffman Estates High School, attended the gala in part to thank Rotarians for their response to the Blessings in a Backpack program that he approached them about two years ago.
The national program sends backpacks filled with food home with students identified by school social workers.
"This program just resonates with our members -- it's such a basic need," says club president Debbie Schmidt, system director of business development for Alexian Brothers Health System.
At Hoffman Estates High School, approximately 40 students receive the backpacks, while at Schaumburg High School -- which started the program this year, thanks in part to a Rotary grant -- another 32 students benefit.
It costs $80 to feed one student for the school year, and Rotarians continue to fundraise and recruit corporate sponsors. So far, they have enlisted Walmart, Meier's and Whole Foods, which contributes fresh produce and bread.
"We feel it's a commitment to literacy," Higginbotham says. "If you're hungry, you can't learn."
Britton says the need for the program reflects the changing economic climate he has seen over the last seven years. The number of students who qualify to receive free and reduced lunch has risen to nearly 50 percent of the student population at Hoffman Estates High School, up from 15 percent seven years ago.
"Families are struggling," Britton said. "In the suburbs, it's a little quieter. They don't know who to approach for help and often school is the first place they turn."
Blessings in a Backpack, he says, allows school officials to help the student and his or her family directly, as well as some of the school-based food pantries.
A pair of special education teachers, Debbie Miller and Angie Rallidis, approached him with the idea, and they continue to pick up food for the program from the corporate sponsors and pack the backpacks each Friday.
In a typical backpack, they might pack macaroni and cheese, fruit granola bars, packets of instant oatmeal, cans of soup, cereal boxes, fruit cups, as well as donated perishable items.
"It's absolutely making a difference," Rallidis says. "The students are so appreciative."
And so are administrators with Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, who, like other organizations in the community, know they have the unconditional support of the Rotarians.