Aurora couple shows joy of giving back, volunteering
For Jen and Mike Reemts, the reaction is the reward.
It's not necessarily being the first couple named as the Fox Valley United Way's Volunteer of the Year.
It's knowing that they've made a difference, helping others in need and seeing the looks of gratitude on people's faces.
Mike, who retired from his career as a training executive at the Oak Brook McDonald's campus in 2004, began volunteering at on the United Way's Community Event Committee.
Five years ago, he was asked to help with Fox Valley United Way Holiday Assistance Program, which provides essentials such as blankets, coats, sheets, diapers and other items to low-income families.
Corporations, trade unions and businesses make in-kind donations, and he and other volunteers would help collect, sort, organize and assemble boxes for pickup. The police and fire departments chip in and the city donates vacant warehouse space.
The second year, Mike asked Jen to help and she still remembers the reaction from one woman who came in.
"She was just so overwhelmed by the generosity, so I said, 'That's it, I'm in,'" recalled Jen, who is a retired school nurse. "These are people who have real needs. We have been very blessed in our lives. We feel like we should be giving back. I've always worked with kids. It's rubbing off on Mike."
That was 2014, and the Reemtses have been full speed ahead ever since.
Last year, Mike dressed up as Santa Claus to help distribute boxes. He plans to do it again in mid-December.
"I've got a really good ho-ho-ho," Mike quipped, then turning serious. "That's the payoff when you see them come in. They're really appreciative."
Mike and Jen credited other groups and volunteers. "It's a community thing, everyone helps out," she said.
"It's an amazing group," Mike added. "It feeds on you. You want to do more."
Jen retired a few years ago and visited the volunteerfoxvalley.org website.
"There's hundreds of opportunities for volunteers. You can match up with what your interest is," Jen said.
She opted for the Fox Valley Hands of Hope, a Geneva-based organization that makes stuffed bears and pillowcases out of clothing from deceased loved ones.
Jen said it takes her about four hours to make a bear, one hour to formulate a plan and three more to sew.
Last year, she helped make about 80 pillowcases and about 25 bears. The thank-you notes from recipients are plentiful.
"It seems unusual that someone would want that, but I get it now," she said. "The people who get them, they aren't just kids. Adults get them, too."
The couple, who have been married 47 years, acknowledged they were surprised and perhaps a tad embarrassed in May 2018 when they were named Volunteers of the Year.
When they were presented the award from the previous year's winner and realized they will be passing the award on to the next recipient, they understood the honor.
"Everybody recognized the work that we did together," Mike said.