Another successful Christmas Gift Program hosted by Unit District 139 means that 103 children in Chester will have a brighter Christmas this year.
The program has been going on in one form or another since the early 2000s and has only grown in the past decade.
Local children in difficult circumstances -- for a variety of reasons -- are identified by sharp-eyed educators and are asked to provide a "wish list."
Shopping lists are created and categorized by age and gender. Only the coordinators know the logging system that coincides with the actual names of the student-recipients.
Donations come in from throughout the community, plus substantial contributions from Knight Hawk Coal and Walmart. The Chester High School football team and coaches take the list and go shopping at Walmart.
Coach Billy Belton said he had 40 kids participate this year.
"It is a great event, and our players enjoy giving back to the community that supports them throughout each football season," he said.
Assistant Coach Trevor Kelkhoff takes care of transporting the gifts from Walmart to the Chester Grade School.
"We are always thankful to the Memorial Hospital of Chester for allowing us to use their box truck to haul the gifts," Kelkhoff said.
Once at the grade school, the gifts are sorted and prepared for pickup by the parents.
In other cases, some local organizations and individuals opt to shop for recipients themselves. They fund, shop, wrap and deliver the gifts to the school where they are sorted, labeled, and made ready for parent pickup on the assigned date and times. These include We Care of Jacob, Memorial Hospital of Chester, St. John Lutheran Church Angel tree in Chester, Love Abby, State Farm Insurance, and Ebenezer Church in Rockwood.
The Christmas Gift Program has a long history in District 139, and the program doesn't lose a beat when one organizer leaves and others take over.
Cindy Ponder, the school social worker from the Perandoe Special Education District, helps to coordinate the annual effort along with school nurse Jurina Reese.
"This program is really a team effort," Ponder said, "with numerous people and organizations contributing to its success. Jurina and I just serve as coordinators."
The program started with Melanie Winters, the former school nurse. Amy Eggemeyer, a more recent school nurse, expanded the program and increased community involvement and fundraising. Nurse Nikki Maue and Ponder assumed responsibility for the project when Eggemeyer left, and now Ponder and Reese continue the effort.
The football team became an integral part of the program under Coach Bryan Lee.
"Lee always contacted Knight Hawk Coal and wrote the grant to Walmart for funding and the players did the shopping," Belton said. "When Coach Lee left Chester High School, Jeremy Blechle took over for two years, and when I took the helm of the YellowJackets from Coach Blechle, I accepted the responsibility for writing the Walmart grant and contacting Knight Hawk Coal for the funding."