JUST of DuPage brings holiday cheer to children of DuPage inmates
Landon O'Brien propped his chin over the Christmas presents, one he picked out for his 6-year-old sister, and squealed.
"Grandma, look which one I got!" the Lombard 8-year-old said, all while juggling a new basketball and boxes of gifts in his arms.
His grandma hopes he can contain that excitement and wait until Christmas morning to unwrap the goodies.
"I'm proud of him," said Florence O'Brien, watching him dribble the basketball Saturday in a holiday party for the children of DuPage County jail inmates at the Wheaton Christian Center in Carol Stream.
Landon knows his dad will spend Christmas in jail, and he also knows money's tight for his grandma raising him and his sister, Heather.
"He has his bad days," O'Brien said.
Saturday wasn't one of them.
Landon's dad learned that JUST of DuPage, a nonprofit group that provides job training, addiction treatment and religious services for inmates, would be hosting the get-together and wanted his kids to join in the merrymaking.
"In his little way, he's doing something for them the best he can," O'Brien said of her 31-year-old son.
Organizers with JUST of DuPage reached out to incarcerated parents before contacting their children's guardians to invite them to the inaugural party. That led to 738 invitations.
More than 600 were expected to visit the church in shifts over five hours Saturday. They were treated to a dinner of ham, mashed potatoes, veggies and their choice of pumpkin pie or cake before kids surfed through piles of age-appropriate, donated gifts. Families also got dental checkups and took home boxes of food donated from grocery stores.
"The families of the inmates had nothing to do with the offenses that their family member committed, but they're suffering because of it," said Joe Udell, president of the nonprofit's board. "This is a way to bring a little light into their lives."
Some of that light came from Anne Allen and Joelle Boopé, professional clowns from West Chicago and Carol Stream who traded their floppy shoes for elves costumes to do face painting.
"You get a Rudolph nose," said Boopé, stamping a red sticker on one girl's nose.
Carla Perry played with her 2-year-old grandson while her daughter volunteered at the party. She also picked up some toys for the mother of six children who has a loved one in jail.
The Naperville woman said she was "flabbergasted" by the festive scene for families of inmates.
"Their children won't miss an opportunity to experience love, and that's what it really is -- it's all about the love of somebody giving back."