Kathy Kinsella of Hinsdale and her mom, Betty Kalber of Burr Ridge, will be recognized as founders when Community Nurse Health Association celebrates the holiday program’s 25th anniversary Jan. 29 in Western Springs.
“It’s the most fun you can have,” Kinsella said. “It worked out very serendipitously. We’re really proud and happy with it.”
Kinsella heard about the need to grant holiday wishes for area families when taking her young children to a Mom’s Day Out program at the First Baptist Church of La Grange.
“I thought we could take 60 of the families, but my dad said, ‘we’ll do all 360,’” Kinsella recalled.
Fundraising wasn’t a problem for Chicago and NBC news anchor Floyd Kalber, his daughter said. But shopping for hundreds of gifts on an unknown budget in only about a month with three young children in tow was a challenge, Kinsella said.
“Our motto was G.W.P., God Will Provide,” Betty Kalber said. “We weren’t keeping track but we spent $10,800, and we got $11,000 in donations. And all the bags were in my living room.”
In 1989, the First Baptist Church offered the mother-and-daughter team a room in the basement to sort and distribute gifts. The following year, the operation moved upstairs to a preschool room.
“We had to haul stuff upstairs to the third floor for 400 kids. Floyd would bring us dinner, and we all sat on little chairs with our knees up,” Kalber said.
The organizers developed contacts for donations from Hanes, Chernin’s Shoes, Beanie Babies and others, as well as a system for organizing gifts and snagging quality merchandise on sale all year long.
Kinsella and Kalber adopted a formula still used today with every child getting a toy on their wish list, two other toys, a book or two, backpack of school supplies, an outfit, underwear and a hat, scarf and mittens.
“On their wish list, some kids would ask for shoes or socks, or whatever God wants,” Kalber said. “We cried over a lot of those letters.”
Community Nurse, which provides free or low-cost healthcare to residents of 19 western suburbs, offers the Secret Santa program as an incentive for families to bring a child in once a year to the health and dental clinics.
In the 1990s, the Secret Santa program moved to a garage connected with the clinic building on Calendar Avenue and later, to a nearby storefront with plenty of storage for housing gifts for 700 kids. The two women recruited an army of individuals and organizations to shop for a child, or sort and pack two bags for each recipient.
In 2000, they stepped down from running the program, but continued to stay involved seeking and offering donations.
“We put in 400 to 600 hours a year,” Kinsella said. “If we could make a difference in the life of one child, then it’s worth it. The kids we first helped are 40 today.”
Both women said a sense of humor a spirit of having fun were essential to the effort.
“This is absolutely the most rewarding thing I ever did,” Kalber said.