By David Castillo, Digital Content Manager, NCLR
For more than 140 years, our Chicago Affiliate, Erie Neighborhood House, has been immersed in its community, striving every day to “promote a just and inclusive society by strengthening low-income, primarily Latino families through skill-building, access to critical resources, advocacy, and collaborative action,” as their mission statement makes clear. We’re honored to make them the focus of our December Affiliate Spotlight.
Erie House offers programming that serves the whole family, from small children to senior citizens, all with the goal of helping immigrant communities succeed. While the demographic makeup of those who Erie House serves has changed over time, the commitment to the people and the families in their neighborhood has been constant. And, one of Erie House’s most cherished traditions, their Holidays with Heart event, exemplifies that love and commitment.
One of the youngest celebrants meets Santa Clause at the 2015 Erie Neighborhood House’s Holidays with Heart this past weekend. Photo: Erie Neighborhood House
For more than 10 years, Erie House has hosted the holiday event, but its roots really go back much further. In the early 1900s, Florence Towne started as a kindergarten teacher and eventually rose to lead the organization. It was Towne who began Erie House’s holiday tradition, which started out modestly with dolls she would give to her students. Now the annual event serves a whole community and is responsible for giving toys away to about 500 kids in need.
“Holidays with Heart is an amazing opportunity for our staff, volunteers, and partners in the business community to come together to spread some holiday cheer to our families in need,” said Celena Roldán-Moreno, Erie House’s Executive Director.
Holidays with Heart is in December, but planning for it begins in September. The entire staff has a role and about 140 volunteers are also called on to help decorate, wrap gifts and provide general support.
“The goal is to be able to provide something for these families, because many of them are low-income. It’s really just to bring some joy to those families,” said Lucero Cervantes, Annual Fund and Special Events Manager for Erie Neighborhood House.
Of course, a holiday event wouldn’t be complete without gift giving, and this is where Erie House’s generous donors really make an impact. In advance of the event, children in Erie House programs are instructed to make a wish list of two gifts. Students are given a dollar amount so the value of all the gifts is more or less the same, but they are usually given what they ask for. That information is then relayed to donors, which number over 40 this year. Donors then work to grant those wishes.
It’s this part of the event that Cervantes looks forward to every year.
“I love seeing how excited and happy they are when they receive a gift, when they see Santa Claus. It’s just a great event for bringing families together,” said Cervantes.
Every year, Erie House helps connect donors with about 500 children to grant them holiday wishes.
The gifts aren’t all that’s offered at Holidays with Heart, however.
“It’s always amazing to see a room filled with presents, wrapped beautifully by volunteers and staff the night before. But our event is about more than just material presents,” said Roldán-Moreno.
Indeed, for the invited families, the event can be a holiday season lifeline. For those families most in need, Erie House will connect them with a donor who can provide them with assistance in the form of grocery gift cards so they can make a holiday meal. They also will receive coats and other accessories to help them get through the brutal Chicago winters.
Together with its strong programming and its emphasis on serving, Erie House highlights the success of the NCLR Affiliate Network and its impact on Latinos all over the country.
“The Affiliate Network allows us to join our one voice with countless other voices across the country,” said Roldán-Moreno. “That gives us hope and helps us recommit to the work at hand each new day.”