For Cheri Litton, it's comes from a passion to serve others.
For Melissa and Nathaniel Clark, it's simply a "practical way to show the love of Christ."
But for the hundreds of southern Illinois residents who would otherwise have nothing to celebrate on Christmas, Litton and the Clarks are representative of the many local angels on earth who go beyond the call to providing hope and love to those who need it this holiday.
There are many stories to be told of these angels. Here are two.
A MISSION TO SERVE
By 2009, Cheri Litton and her good friend, Doyce Campbell, were in the 13th year of running the Johnston City Ministerial Alliance Thrift Store/Food Pantry, which Campbell founded. In July, Campbell was ill, and told Litton she would likely have to close the pantry.
"I just could not let her do that," Litton said. "I knew the people who needed it ... and I have a passion to serve."
Litton took over the operation and registered it as a 501(c) 3 nonprofit. She also changed the name to JC Manna Mission. "The JC could stand for Johnston City or Jesus Christ, depending on how I felt that day," Litton said.
Today, the Mission has grown under her leadership to provide food, clothing and other needs to more than 540 families in the Johnston City area. Staffed by 20 volunteers, the agency is entirely funded through sales from the thrift store and donations from the community.
"I took over not knowing whether it would survive, and it just took off," she said, adding she's always at the Mission to work with the volunteers and those needing its services.
While the thrift store and food pantry operate throughout the year, the Mission takes on a bigger role during the holiday with its Angel Tree and Shining Seniors gift programs. Angel Tree provides gifts to local children in need, while Shining Seniors does the same for senior citizens in need. Last year, Angel Tree provided gifts to 102 children and Shining Seniors helped five local residents.
Angel Tree is open to children within the Johnston City school district. Parents provide the names of their children, a number is assigned to each child and a card with the number and the child's gift needs are hung on a tree at local businesses, where people can select a card and buy the gifts, which are returned to the Mission.
"I go through them and make sure get every child gets PJs, clothes and toys," Litton said. "Like new" toys that are donated to the thrift store throughout the year are also pulled aside and kept to help fill the gift bags, she added.
Seeing the reactions from the children and their parents is a big motivator for Litton. A few years ago, she was upset by a parent who asked, "Is this all I get?" after receiving four gifts for his children. But a short time later, she saw a woman standing at the Mission doorway, their gifts already packed into the car.
"Cheri, my husband is sitting in the driver's seat and is sobbing so hard he can't drive us home because he's so appreciative," the woman said. "I'm just standing here waiting until he quits crying so we can go home."
Litton said that was the moment she knew "the Lord had worked that whole situation out."
"I just need to be the servant and do what I have to do and let the Lord handle them."
Nothing goes to waste. Medical equipment like walkers and wheelchairs are made available to seniors free. Blankets that cannot be used by people are given to a local no-kill animal shelter. Expired food is given to local organizations that help wildlife.
The Mission has been Litton's life for the more than 20 years it's been around, but despite the struggles, she said the work is just part of her own mission to serve others through Christ.
"Whenever I would get down, the Lord would send somebody in, or I would see somebody who would say, 'Cheri, if it had not been for the mission, we wouldn't have gotten to eat that week.'
"I can guarantee you every time I think that I'm just worn out, there will be somebody who would come to me with those words, and that's what keeps me going."
'We fully accept them'
Melissa and Nathaniel Clark of Carbondale found their way into another Angel Tree program at Christ Community Church in Murphysboro, about four years ago after a friend asked them to help out.
The program, run by Christ Community Church in partnership with Prairie Cardiovascular in Carbondale, provides Christmas gifts to about 75 children of prison inmates every year. The group receives a list of local families from the national Prison Fellowship ministry, Melissa Clark explained, and the child's caretakers are contacted to find out the child's needs.
The information is put onto tags and hung on Christmas trees at the church and medical facility, where parishioners and employees can pick up a tag and shop for the child.
"We set a budget of between $30-$75 per child," Melissa said, which includes a range of items from clothing to toys. "A little bit of necessity, a little bit of toys. We let the sponsors choose how much they want to do with each."
Once the gifts are bought and wrapped, the children and caretakers are invited to a party, where the gifts are given out. The children meet Santa and Mrs. Claus, get their faces painted, play games, listen to music and have snacks.
"The kids really appreciate the gifts, and it takes a lot of stress off the caregivers,' Clark said. "It's a fun, festive environment. "We also do a short presentation sharing the love of Christ and letting them know how much we love them and how happy we to have them here.
Clark said children of prison inmates are too often neglected or judged by society because of what their parents have done.
"We fully accept them," she added. "They are just kids who need to have a fun Christmas."
The party benefits the caretakers as well, helping them provide a happy Christmas experience.
"You're dealing with grandmas and grandpas who are having to raise these kids who are basically victims," she said. "And they are so grateful, that's probably the best part."
The staff takes pictures of the children at the party, and mails them to the parents in prison. Prisoners often write back, grateful they have a memento of their happy child.
Clark said Christ Community Church's mission is showing the love of Christ is a practical way.
"The best part is we get to see these kids and let them know 'Hey, we love you and accept you.'"