IRVING PARK — A group of families who live on the same block joined forces with local businesses, elected officials and first responders to help Santa bring hundreds of gifts to Irving Park Saturday afternoon.
During the third annual Front Porch Christmas, more than 500 kids and their parents passed through the 3800 Block of North Sacramento Avenue to mingle with St. Nick and choose a present from a tent overflowing with toys collected by neighbors.
“I’ve seen the impact that being able to give back has on the volunteers who just keep coming back to do this each year,” said head organizer Julie Weber, who dresses up as Mrs. Claus for the event. “Watching a smile light up a kid’s face as they pick out their own toy from a whole toy store worth of stuff, it’ll feed you for a year. It’s really something.”
Weber, who’s lived in the neighborhood for about eight years, started rallying neighbors in October to collect toys, books, board games, gift cards and winter gear for the event.
With donation boxes placed at State Rep. Jaime Andrade’s office and at Leader Bar, 3000 W. Irving Park Road, “the whole community came together” to gather more than enough supplies to fill multiple tents in Webers’ front yard, Weber said.
“I’d say that most of the houses in our neighborhood have donated toys, a lot of them come out to help do this, and they don’t mind letting us use the sidewalk even if it can get a bit out of control,” Weber said.
Shortly after kids started choosing their gifts Saturday afternoon, emergency sirens surprised everyone, blaring over the holiday music. A parade of firetrucks and ambulances filled with bags of toys caused the families lining the block to erupt into cheers.
“It was just great to see the first responders, you don’t always get to see them out to say thank you,” said Jason Warling, a volunteer whose family has lived in the same house on the block for six generations. “It kind of helps you see how everybody’s involved in this in some way.”
What started in 2020 with a handful of neighbors coming together to make sure their kids’ classmates got their share of holiday cheer during a tough time has “grown organically” into something much larger, Weber said.
The idea came to Weber while she was sheltering at home during the winter in 2020 and eavesdropping on her kids’ online classes. She overheard the teacher ask a kid what he’d gotten for his birthday, and he said he didn’t get anything because his parents lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
“I just remember thinking, ‘If he’s not getting any birthday presents, this poor baby isn’t going to get any Christmas gifts either,’” Weber said. “So, I started thinking about what we could do to try and help the kids at our school who aren’t as fortunate as we are.”
Within a few months, Weber had “roped” her husband into wearing an old Santa costume and coordinated with about fifty neighborhood moms to collect enough new and gently used toys for 700 kids, she said.
“It was really hard the first year because people wanted to stay safe, so we had our masks on and were trying to social distance,” Weber said. “But we were outside and it was Christmas, we couldn’t let these kids go without waving to Santa and getting their presents.”
Just five neighbors were running the event when it started but 20 people helped keep things moving as families filled the sidewalk during the weekend giveaway.
“When I kept seeing people showing up with trucks and just pallets of toys, I was thinking like, ‘How did they advertise so well?” said Lonny Boeke, a volunteer who just moved to the neighborhood this year. “But they didn’t really, it’s just so many people hearing about it through word of mouth and looking for a place to try and help out.”
Warling has helped out with the event each year since its conception and watched it bring neighbors closer together.
“Chicago’s all about neighborhoods, about the people living on a block knowing each other. It’s about coming together as a community and just enjoying each other,” Warling said. “Through this event, I’ve met so many of my neighbors and we have a big block party every summer now.”
Warling said these connections have allowed parents to push for improvements at the school, and their work in the community “doesn’t stop here.”
“For those kids who have to go without around the holiday season, this offers them a toy, that’s what it started as,” Warling said, tearing up. “And it spreads hope. This neighborhood has been through a lot. I’ve seen it really low, really high, and right now I’d say we’re in the middle, but these types of things really inspire the Christmas spirit.”