Effingham Daily News
The Christmas season can be a busy time for most people, who seem to be rushing to family dinners, Christmas parties and hitting the store for those last-minute gifts.
But some families don’t have the luxury of swiping their credit cards for a quick dessert tray or a gift for an office friend, and those families need extra help during one of the most stressful times of the year.
That’s where Effingham County FISH Human Services comes in with its well-known Christmas Store, helping to provide families with presents for children, food on Christmas day and even home appliances that would otherwise be too expensive to purchase.
FISH President and Christmas Store Coordinator Karen Luchtefeld, who’s been involved with the nonprofit organization since the mid-1990s, said the number of families who shop at the store has grown.
When Luchtefeld became coordinator in 1995, about 250 families shopped at the store. Last Christmas, 646 families came through, and the store brightened Christmas for 919 kids with new toys, clothes and enough food to make a child’s belly too full to play with toys after Christmas dinner.
The number of families being served has fluctuated, as well as the number of people. The poor economy has seen a steady rise in numbers, but when big factories such as Fedders and Quebecor moved out of Effingham, families also left the city, helping alleviate a huge influx of need. Although the number of children per family has typically become fewer over the years, the need keeps rising because of rising costs, said Luchtefeld.
According to a 1975 Effingham Daily News article, the store has been serving the area since 1974, when about 150 families were helped. In the late ’70s, the toy store was added, one of the highlights of today’s Christmas store.
The amount of new and used toys available for children can seem overwhelming, with tables overflowing with baby toys, dolls and sport sets. Half of the toys are bought with monetary donations to FISH, while the rest are donated from local residents in the area.
The store tries to make sure each child in the family between the ages of 3 and 15 gets one new toy for Christmas. If available, families might also get a choice of a couple of used toys, a family activity game, learning materials for young children, such as crayons or Play-doh, a clothing voucher for Catholic Charities or food vouchers for turkeys or hams.
Also, each family that comes through the store receives a bag of food, with contents according to the number of people in a family.
In addition, families also are given a clothing voucher to shop at Catholic Charities. Luchtefeld said FISH partnered with the other faith-based organization about five years ago when Catholic Charities was running out of room at its prior location on the corner of Maple Street and Fayette Avenue.
Catholic Charities asked if it could store some supplies for its annual Christmas giving at the FISH Service Center, and after a few meetings, both organizations realized it was time to team together to help families during the Christmas season.
Last year, the Christmas store was held at Midco International’s Warehouse in the Industrial Park, but for about the past 10 years, the location has changed each year.
Luchtefeld said the store used to be held at the Illinois National Guard Armory on Temple Avenue, but after the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, the armory couldn’t be used for anything that wasn’t military-related because it is a time of war.
Luchtefeld said moving could be considered a blessing in disguise because the store was outgrowing the armory. Since that time, the store has opened up each Christmas season in various places, such as the former K-Square Mall, Village Square Mall and the current Catholic Charities building.
Each building has donated its space, which has also become an issue because of the kinds of items the Christmas store has recently offered, including large household appliances, such as stoves, refrigerators and furniture.
The store began accepting the large appliances in 2001 when someone called and requested a stove, refrigerator and other appliances. After coordinating where to pick up the appliances, it turned out the stove and refrigerator, which were from different places, matched.
Since then, the store will accept a few donations of the large items, but will not deliver them. Luchtefeld said she prefers people call and request them, and if she knows of anyone willing to give them away, she will try and coordinate the time the two can get together for delivery and drop off.
To shop at the store, families must live in Effingham County and qualify financially. Unfortunately, because so many families need the store, FISH has become more strict in the qualifying process.
However, senior citizens and the disabled also are allowed to shop at the store and have no restrictions placed on them other than they are required to be residents of Effingham County.
Families are given a date to shop at the store, and Luchtefeld said the store sees about seven families every 20 minutes for the four and a half days the store is open. In a typical family of four, about three shopping carts will be packed with items the family needs.
According to Luchtefeld, the goal of the store is to give families items they need to make the holidays brighter, such as Christmas decorations, knick knacks and large appliances. It’s the basics, such as food, clothing and toys, however, that are the most important items available at the Christmas store.
In the mid-1990s, Luchtefeld said the store was open for about three days, but with so many families needing help, the days were expanded and more volunteers were used. At the time, about 150 to 200 people were helped, but the numbers have grown to 300 or even higher.
The Christmas store is a huge part of FISH services, and Luchtefeld is a true believer in its power during the giving season.
“What we get is what we give, and that is an unbelievable feeling.”
Samantha Newburn may be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 131 or firstname.lastname@example.org