United Way's 'Uniting for the Holidays' expanding in the suburbs
Thousands of holiday dinners and gifts for children are being distributed through mid-December by the nonprofit program "Uniting for the Holidays," which expects to reach about 4,000 families this season.
The program is offered by United Way of Metro Chicago, which works with local community partners to set up festive drive-through events where families are greeted by Santa and cheerful volunteers.
The program took place last week in Des Plaines and Palatine, and other events are set for the weeks to come in Elgin, West Chicago, Skokie, Harvey, Chicago Heights/Ford Heights and Blue Island/Robbins. That's two more sites than last year, a nod to the program's success, said Kimberlee Guenther, chief impact officer at United Way of Metro Chicago.
"We found it was a just a great way to reach more families and to engage more volunteers," she said. "We're really fortunate to live in a generous community where people really want to help their neighbors whenever they can."
The holiday dinners -- turkey, potatoes, green beans, gravy and cranberry sauce, for those who participated last week -- are provided by Soul & Smoke in Des Plaines and Palatine, Northern Illinois Food Bank in West Chicago and Elgin, and Top Box Foods at the remaining locations.
United Way will spend about $100,000 for the food and resources necessary to offer the event. There are also many in-kind donations.
The program relies on many donors, Guenther said. In particular, BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois and the Seigle Foundation of Elgin have been "phenomenal partners" whose representatives also volunteer in person, she said.
In the past, United Way had an in-person Thanksgiving dinner that served about 500 residents in Skokie, Guenther said. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the agency pivoted to the drive-through holiday program, which also gives out face masks and hand sanitizer.
"Knowing that a lot of families were struggling even more so than years prior, we still wanted to do something to help families find some joy in a really difficult time last year," she said. "We wanted to still create that festive atmosphere and still keep everybody safe."
The reinvented program also allows families to have holiday meals in the comfort of their own homes. "That is really what anybody wants, to be able to have a holiday that fulfills them and their families," she said.
Due to its success, the program is expected to be offered in years to come, Guenther said.
"There will continue to be families that are struggling, especially during the holiday season, and they shouldn't have to miss out having happy family holidays because of that."
United Way mostly works with local community partners, like Catholic Charities in Des Plaines and Partners for Our Communities in Palatine, to identify families to participate.
Three events are first-come, first-served. Recipients must drive-through in their cars to receive the holiday dinners at:
• West Chicago: 5:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at Wheaton Bible Church, 27W500 E. North Ave.
• Elgin: 4 p.m. Dec. 15 at Elgin Community College, 1700 Spartan Drive.
• Skokie: 5 p.m. Dec. 16 at St. Peter Catholic Church, 8116 Niles Center Road.