Just before Christmas, the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen in Champaign handed out more than 750 backpacks full of cold-weather supplies and holiday treats to men, women and children in need - almost twice as many as the year before. Contributing to the effort was a group of friends who have made a holiday tradition out of giving to those in need, rather than each other. This column originally appeared in The News-Gazette on Dec. 20.
For this holiday party, the spread on the dining room table features hats, gloves and long underwear.
The sideboard holds rows of lotion and toothpaste.
And tucked under the Christmas tree, near the stuffed Rudolph, are piles of new and used backpacks.
The women who gather every year at Ellen Harms’ historic house on Elm Boulevard are a lively bunch, but they decided a long time ago they didn’t need anymore stuff.
So rather than exchange gifts, or even ornaments, they get together to stuff backpacks for the homeless — with warm clothes, toiletries and a few treats to boot. The packs are donated to the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen’s annual backpack giveaway.
They’re not just do-gooders. These women have fun. There is wine involved.
It’s a tradition begun years ago, when they first started playing tennis together at the Champaign Park District’s indoor courts.
At first, they adopted a family for Christmas through the Children’s Home and Aid Society. When that agency closed, they filled bags with gifts for the St. Jude’s Catholic Worker House, where Harms was a regular volunteer at the shelter’s soup kitchen.
When the soup kitchen closed in 2009 and reopened down the street as Daily Bread, the tennis group moved with it and started stuffing backpacks at Christmas. Harms has a Wednesday night book club that does the same.
No one can remember exactly when they started playing tennis together. The years have a way of blurring. But it was about 20 years ago, more or less, when their children were young and they’d carpool together or run into each other at the tennis courts.
Harms and longtime friend Judy Nowak were two of the founding members. So was Rosemary Sabbia. After that, it gets a little fuzzy. But somewhere along the way, they picked up Mary Kay Pleck, Linda Sloat, Barbara Callaghan, Judy Griffith, Betsy Boyle, Donna O’Brien and Glenda Henderson.
“We were better once upon a time,” Harms confesses.
Several of the women had spouses who worked at Christie Clinic. Others met through their children, like Pleck and Sabbia, who carpooled to Playtime Preschool.
Some, like Callaghan, would come and go as they moved away from or back to Champaign-Urbana. Pleck was a longtime sub before being asked to join.
In the beginning they exchanged ornaments but soon decided they all had enough “stuff.”
“None of us need anymore gifts,” Pleck says. “It’s a really worthwhile thing to do and it’s fun. We enjoy being together. And Ellen is a great cook.”
Sabbia still sneaks in a treat for everyone — this year, an ornament.
“I like being Santa,” she confesses. “They’re my dearest friends, and I want to remember them at Christmastime. I love Christmas.“
So does Harms, who has two big trees and a dozen smaller ones scattered around her 100-year-old house.
But the gathering is primarily about the job at hand.
Harms starts an assembly line: Each pack gets a shirt or sweatshirt, long underwear, gloves, a hat, hand lotion for chapped skin, a bag of treats, maybe a comb, hand warmers or a box of playing cards.
“Is everyone listening to me?” she calls out above the din.
There’s plenty of chatter: good-natured teasing, even trash talking about their tennis game.
“It’s a lot like on the tennis court: too much darn talking, not enough playing,” Callaghan says.
“There’s a lot of chiefs in this group,” Sabbia explains.
As they work, O’Brien is the last to arrive, bedecked in a full-length white fake-fur coat, miniskirt, black boots and bands of rhinestone bracelets.
“The weight helps me hit the ball,” she says.
The group can’t wait to show her the red lingerie someone inexplicably donated for the backpacks, which go mostly to single men.
“She is the fashionista of the group,” Harms says.
When all is said and done, the tennis friends have filled 31 backpacks, on top of the 33 Harms’ book club threw together the night before.
The soup kitchen hoped to give out at least 400, and Harms was pretty confident it would meet the goal. Churches, university organizations and other groups were also filling backpacks, and donors contributed lots of money.
One man called to say he wanted to provide a backpack but would be in Florida. He asked how much they cost to put together and Harms estimated about $50 each. He said he’d contribute 20, and she thought he meant dollars. He dropped off a check for $1,000, for 20 backpacks.
“This is a very generous community,” Harms says. “People are aware it’s a tough time. This is something they can do and feel good about.”
Her friends would agree. “I always,” Nowak says, “leave feeling so much better than when I came.” Hugging Harms, she adds, “She’s the one who makes it all work.”
To which Harms, with an eyeroll, says, “She’s just being nice to me because I didn’t make her play a second set.” They were too busy talking about the Illini win the night before.
Then it was on to the wine and chili.
Julie Wurth writes and blogs about family issues and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, jwurthnews-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.
At top: Judy Nowak, left and Ellen Harms, right, discuss plans for the backpacks on Dec. 8 as their friends work in the background (Judy Griffith, Barbara Callaghan and Mary Kay Pleck).
Middle: Callaghan adds a scarf to the pile on the dining room table.
Below: Harms shows off two of the completed backpacks. Photos by Vanda Bidwell/The News-Gazette