A very merry Christmas Eve for Marklund children

Volunteers, community help make Christmas merry at Marklund

As they've been doing for 35 years, volunteers helped children at the Marklund Philip Center in Bloomingdale open presents on Christmas Eve, gifts from members of the community.

A boombox played Christmas carols as volunteers went to and fro picking up presents from a massive pile of more than 126 gifts and opening each one for the child it went to.

Joel Santi, from Oak Park, said he first came to a Marklund Christmas party more than 20 years ago dressed as Santa. He has been back every year since, sans suit, to help open presents.

"Everyone in my family knows at 10 o'clock on Christmas Eve that I'm at Marklund," Santi said as he opened a present, a little red bird ornament, for Michelle. Michelle smiled as Santi made the bird kiss her cheek.

"It is such a rewarding experience," Santi said.

Another volunteer, Barbara Lambie, from Hoffman Estates, was back for her second year.

"We came last Christmas and said we have to make this a tradition," Lambie said.

Heather Graves, the chief development officer at Marklund, said the Christmas Eve tradition is just one way staff and volunteers try to make sure the 21 children with severe and profound disabilities who live at the center have as normal of a life as possible.

"If it is something that other kids are able to do," like trips to see ice skating shows, "let's make sure our kids do it too," Graves said. "It takes a little more effort and more support staff, but we want to make something special for them."

Gunjan Patel, the director of children's services at Marklund, said each child received btween six and eight gifts, mostly donated by members of the community. She said that, every year, the staff makes a wish list for each child that goes on a Christmas tree in the building so anyone can look and see what kind of presents to seek out.

Patel said clothes usually make the list because of how quickly some of the children are growing. On Christmas Eve, the children were wearing new holiday-themed pajamas they'd been given by the Lions Club of Itasca.

"They get the best stuff," Patel said. "People are very generous."

  Joel Santi of Oak Park helps a delighted Michelle open her presents during the Christmas celebration. Paul Michna/
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