MICHIGAN CITY – They do it to see the smile on a kid’s face.
That seemed to be the motivating factor for 400 chaperones and volunteers at the La Porte Jaycees Deserving Children’s Shopping Tour, an annual tradition to make the season brighter for children across La Porte County.
“I love putting a smile on a kid’s face. It’s the greatest thing,” said Allison Frye, a Jaycee who started volunteering for the event four years ago. “I love volunteering. ... The stuff that we take for granted is what others don’t have. To be able to extend your hand and help them is amazing.”
The project began 48 years ago in La Porte when a few Jaycees took seven kids on a shopping spree.
“It just grew from there,” said Jaycee Senator Joy Zigler.
The event offers elementary students a Christmas experience their families might not be able to provide. A total of 331 children from La Porte, Wanatah, LaCrosse, Rolling Prairie, New Carlisle and Westville met on Tuesday night at the La Porte County Fairgrounds, while an event at the Orak Shrine Center was held for 260 Michigan City students on Wednesday.
Two chaperones per family picked up the children and brought them for a McDonalds dinner, visit with Santa, stockings filled with candy, small toys, hat and gloves; along with a book and fleece blanket.
Then they headed to Walmart to choose needed items such as MCAS school uniforms, coats, boots, and, of course, a toy or two.
Frye joined up with Jaycee Lindsay Jongkind from La Porte. The 7-year-old boy in their group wanted to find a PacMan toy, along with new pants and shirts; a 6-year-old was hoping to buy Microbots and a Bumblebee Transformer.
“It’s a great opportunity for the kids to get some things they need and have a great Christmas. It’s a way for the community to come together,” Jongkind said.
Angela Palmieri teamed up with her mother, Nancy Palmieri, to take siblings Jamecia, 11; James, 10; Javon, 9; and Journey, 6 on a shopping spree. They were excited to look for coats, clothes, socks and other necessities, while Journey kept a keen eye out for Hatchimals Surprise Twins.
Helping out with the Shopping Tour is the La Porte County Association of REALTORS, which had been in charge of the Michigan City tour for four decades before partnering with the Jaycees. The LPCAR provides a substantial amount of the money needed through a live and silent auction at the Orak Shrine Center.
This year $41,000 was raised, according to Rosie Michaels, chairperson for the auction.
She's involved “to see the eyes light up on kids who may have never seen Santa before. A lot of times the kids want to buy something for their parents.”
That was the case for 6-year-old Brandon and another 11-year-old boy, chaperoned by Jaycees Community Vice President Anita Freels; her husband, Jim Freels; and her brother Pedro Avila.
Both boys chose a candle for their mother. Brandon also came back with school uniforms, snow boots, a remote control truck and a board game to share with his family; the older boy was interested in new clothes.
They were planning a special dinner at Holly’s Restaurant as an extra treat. “They were wonderful. We couldn’t have asked for better kids honestly,” Anita said.
Kristy Hahn, co-chair for the Shopping Tour in Michigan City along with Brad Hinsley, called it “a big project. We start working on it right after our other big event, the 4th of July parade.”
She said CompressAir in La Porte donated cinch sacks with blankets; Walmart sponsors the event; and money is also made available through a Unity Foundation grant.
WCOE 96.7 FM The Eagle in La Porte is involved in a more unconventional way. General Manager Dennis Siddall heard about the event from friends, and for the past 16 years, has sat on the roof of the station for three days and two nights in September in a Deserving Children’s Roof Sit to raise awareness and funds. To date, half a million dollars has been collected from his efforts.
Members of other community organizations keep him company atop the roof, including the Jaycees, LPCAR, Michigan City Moose Lodge 980, Pioneer Land at the La Porte County Fairgrounds, and the Play for Jake Foundation.
Siddall joked about how he started the Roof Sit in a 10-foot-by-10-foot canopy and pup tent, and has graduated to a wooden shack complete with pull-out bed he calls the “condo.”
But, his favorite part is the two nights of shopping. As he passed out the McDonalds meals and chips, he said, “This is the best part of it all. I love this from last night to tonight.”
Assisting was Kim Snyder, co-chair with Kristian Metcalf for the Tour in La Porte. She was pleased with how well it went.
“It takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it in the end when the kids are happy,” she said.
A lot planning is accomplished months ahead, according to Snyder, including keeping in touch with the schools who submit the names of children. Each child is allocated a $125 tax-exempt voucher for purchases.
“A lot of chaperones let them go above the limit and buy extras out of their pockets,” Hahn said. Chaperones include LPCAR members, Jaycees, counselors, teachers and police officers.
Jessica Schmidt, Elementary Alternative Program teacher at Marsh Elementary School, paired up with her aunt, Sue Cusick, who teaches first grade and has been with MCAS for 33 years.
“It’s a way to show we care about the kids,” Cusick said. “We always see the need.”
“There is so much need in our school,” agreed Schmidt. “It’s a good way to give back.”
Ashlee Bluhm, a friend of Hahn’s, has helped out in La Porte and agreed to assist in Michigan City this year. She was busy handing out stockings.
“I love it. It just warms your heart. They are so thankful for toothbrushes, blankets and hats,” she said.
Brittany Burns of Michigan City got involved as a chaperone last year because of her mom, an MCAS teacher for 25 years.
“I only have dog kids, so I try to get involved with kids’ events when I can,” she said. “It’s such a good program.”
She encouraged her friend Lisa Burns, also of Michigan City, to join her last year as well.
“It was a really fun experience,” Lisa said before taking the kids in their group shopping. “It was fun seeing the kids excited and happy. It’s rewarding being able to take the time.”
This year’s Tour was a first for Jenna Avila, a call center representative at Horizon Bank. She is introduced to volunteer opportunities at work, but “this one especially appealed to me because it’s so rewarding,” she said.
She encouraged her co-worker, Sandra Haro, to join. “I asked her if she would. I wanted to help out in the community and share a smile with the kids and make it really about them.”