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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Santa Box Project Connects South Side Kids With Books, Families With Food This Holiday Season

Children of the 400 families who received free produce through Experimental Station's Market Box program will now receive a personalized book set, toys and $75 in groceries.

Left: Star Farm staff and volunteers packed 100 bags with produce, bread and eggs Sept. 17. Right: A volunteer holds donated Santa Box books.
Davon Clark; Eve L. Ewing/ Instagram
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WOODLAWN — Hundreds of South Side children will get books and art supplies and their families will receive groceries this weekend through the Santa Box initiative.

The Woodlawn-based team behind the Market Box mutual aid effort, writer and University of Chicago professor Eve L. Ewing and independent bookstores will help deliver Santa Boxes to 400 families Saturday.

Organizers hope to raise about $41,000 before Saturday to supply books, toys, art supplies and $75 grocery store gift cards to every family that received Market Boxes before the program went on hiatus in October.

As of Dec. 11, the effort had raised about $22,000. To donate to the Santa Box project, click here.

Extra funds will go toward rebooting regular Market Box deliveries in January and supporting other efforts “to provide for our network in a pretty dire time of food insecurity,” said Maira Khwaja, director of public impact strategy and outreach at the Invisible Institute.

“At these times, where the whole country or city isn’t necessarily giving everything they could, at least [recipients] know many of their South Side neighbors are thinking of them and want the conditions of everyone’s lives to be improved,” Khwaja said.

In their Santa Boxes, kids will receive books in subject areas they’re interested in, covering everything from Black history and robots to travel, crafting and food, Ewing said.

Staffers at local, independent bookstores will choose three age-appropriate books for each child.

The participating bookstores:

Young readers “are really smart and when they follow their enthusiasms, they find their best reading experiences,” Seminary Co-Op Director Jeff Deutsch said. “Letting them guide our choices with their interests made a lot of sense.”

Deutsch praised the Santa Box team for organizing a mutual aid project where “we’re all in this together.” The initiative allows kids to develop their interests and get a break from their extensive screen time, he said, while local bookstores are supported financially.

Ewing said she’s participated in a “letters to Santa” gift giveaway program for nearly 20 years that was canceled for 2020, with schools and many community centers closed due to the pandemic.

As she brainstormed how to fill that gap, she sought partners with existing delivery networks, which are plentiful given the wealth of mutual aid initiatives across the city.

“The pandemic has highlighted the many ways that we fail as a society to provide our basics to our people,” Ewing said. “Especially in Chicago, we’re always creative about creating ways to care for each other that build the kind of systems and relationships we want to have.”

Ewing paid “a lot of attention” to Market Box over the summer and was “already friendly with the Invisible Institute and everybody at the Experimental Station,” so a partnership seemed like a natural fit, she said.

With the support of the Market Box team and bookstores Ewing had built relationships with as an author, the project got underway around Thanksgiving.

Since starting last month, it’s been a joy to see the array of subjects the kids have shown interest in, Khwaja said. She hopes the “neighborliness” of the project can help kids understand people outside their home also care for them through this traumatic time.

“We’re obviously not going to fundamentally change the mental health issues and the challenges of this year,” Khwaja said. “But the collective act of extending those resources and encouraging kids to know, ‘What you are going through is really hard, you deserve to express yourself’ … that does go a long way in terms of the community love that a kid can feel.”

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