By A.L. Smith, Contributing Writer
Greetings! Christmas and New Year’s are widely celebrated during this special time of year, when individuals, friends and families look forward to enjoying a happy, safe, and fun-filled holiday season! For many of us it sparks the desire to give back — having been taught to believe that taking the time to reflect on our relative good fortune and sharing these blessings with others can make the holiday season more meaningful.
Larry Huggins, the respected CEO of Riteway-Huggins Construction Inc. is such a believer and he puts his beliefs into action. That’s why he founded Christmas in the Wards (CITW) 22 years ago.
Maybe you’ve hardly noticed it during the excited rush of shopping, attending annual holiday events with family and friends, as well as merry gift-giving exchanges for Christmas and preparations for New Year’s – but the reality is that in these challenging times, many Chicago families are not as fortunate, and this season is hardly merry and bright.
But for every sad story during the holiday season, thankfully there’s also a wonderful spirit of help, happiness and hope. That’s where the magic and mission of Christmas in the Wards nonprofit charitable organization comes in. Why? Because they are dedicated to making a dynamic difference – – and they definitely do.
That’s the critically important message that CITW Executive Director LaToyia Huggins wants to emphasize. “We are focused on giving back to the community at Christmas in the Wards, which was founded by my father over two decades ago, and we plan to continue this mission,” said Ms. Huggins.
Just ask Breshanna, a single widowed mom with three school-age children working two jobs to make ends meet for her family. Faced with enduring another bleak, gift-less Christmas, she swallowed her pride and asked for assistance through her church. And Christmas in the Wards answered the call. “Christmas in the Wards is one of the best things that ever happened to my family, and I thank them for everything,” she smiled.
Over the past 22 years, Christmas in the Wards has brought smiles, tears of joy, and the true spirit of the holidays to thousands of deserving at-risk families in impoverished neighborhoods across the city. Additionally, through an amazing network of giving corporate and business partnerships, CITW has generated over $2.0 million dollars to provide warm clothes, toys, books, school supplies, computers and other electronic gifts for needy families, children and community residents in Chicago.
And 2018 has proved equally benevolent, this year successfully raising over $200,000 in monetary and in-kind sponsorship donations for the annual toy and gift giveaway events. In addition, scores of CITW ‘Holiday Elves,’ consisting of employees of sponsoring corporations and participating organizations such as ComEd, Starbucks and Walsh Construction volunteer their own free time to wrap presents prior to the gift distributions.
“Christmas season is truly the season of giving, a time where families come together and a special atmosphere engulfs our community. When the young ones are asking for special toys they see, they’re hoping that Santa Claus will make their wishes and dreams come true. Our job at Christmas in the Wards is to give good old Santa a generous helping hand,” says one of the city’s most philanthropically-focused business leaders, Larry Huggins.
Christmas in the Wards originally began as Christmas in Englewood, founded by local businessman and Riteway-Huggins Construction CEO, Larry Huggins. “As adults we know that there is a deeper meaning and purpose for Christmas and the Holiday Season. However, it’s heartbreaking to see children with sad and empty faces because they don’t expect to receive a single gift during this time. Unfortunately, for so many children in our community these days – this is their reality due to circumstances beyond their control,” says Huggins.
Today, Huggins credits his longtime partnership with local noted entrepreneurs and brothers, Everett Rand, CEO of Midway Wholesalers, Inc., and Timothy Rand, Principal of MAC One, Inc. with helping create the successfully inclusive, positive, and accessible experience for all of those impacted by Christmas in the Wards.
Once again this year, many major local Chicago sponsors including Walmart, AFS Properties, law firm Winston Strawn and Tito’s Vodka, COMED, City Colleges of Chicago, Linn-Mathis, Walgreens, Comcast, Chicago Cubs, UBER, Union Pacific, Scholastic, SMG-Soldier Field, Starbucks, PepsiCo, WGN9 as well as many local businesses and construction contractors from Chicagoland, partnered with Christmas in the Wards to ensure that each child who showed up at their December 15th and December 22nd give-away events, held at Malcolm X College and Olive Harvey College respectively, received presents for Christmas.
When the 2018 Christmas in the Wards families arrived at both the December 15th and 22nd extravaganzas, they were ushered into a large room decorated as a Christmas fantasyland, and treated to complimentary photos with Santa sponsored by Walgreens and a holiday-themed breakfast, courtesy of Walmart. Upon entering the auditorium, children and adults alike uttered loud squeals of astonished delight, as they saw a huge mountain of several hundred brightly wrapped gifts, including hundreds of bicycles, televisions, clothes, and sought-after gaming electronics, dolls, trucks and other toys to greet them
Christmas in the Wards is partially funded by civically-committed corporate partners who help cover the cost of purchasing the presents for these community families.
“After paying for rent, food and other basic needs, many of the families that come to Christmas in the Wards have little leftover for holiday spending,” said Everett Rand, of Midway Wholesalers. “It fills my heart to know that these kids will have new toys and clothes during the holidays.”
Adding to the Holiday Spirit of Christmas during these two consecutive December weekend inspirational mornings were brief programs kicking-off Christmas in the Wards, thanking key supporters with awards, and presenting several high-achieving high school and college students with laptop computers.
Helping to give out the Christmas gifts and toys, were event emcees Westside- Tanya Francisco of WGN TV; Southside- Carolyn Palmer, Chicago Defender newspaper, LaRoyce Hawkins, star of the hit TV show Chicago PD and legendary comedian Michael Coylar. Also joining the festivities was City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado; Illinois Governor-Elect J.B. Pritzker; Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle; Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Congressman Bobby L. Rush, (1st); Congresswoman Robin Kelly (2nd) and 7th District Congressman Danny K. Davis;), CITW Co-Chairs: Alderman Carrie Austin (34th Ward) and Alderman Michelle Harris (8th Ward) were joined by local south and west side aldermen, including: Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd); Ald. Sophia King (4th); Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th); Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th); Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th); Ald. Anthony Beale (9th); Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th); Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th); Ald. Toni Foulkes (16th); Ald. David Moore (17th); Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th); Ald. Willie Cochran (20th); Ald. Howard Brookins (21st); Alderman Michael Scott (24th); Alderman Walter Burnett (27th); Alderman Jason Ervin (28th); Alderman Chris Taliaferro (29th); Alderman Emma Mitts (37th); and MWRD Vice-President/Commissioner Barbara McGowan. Corporate and business partners included AFS Properties, Tito’s Vodka and law firm Winston Strawn, Walmart, Walgreens, WGN-TV Channel 9, and COMED.
At the end of the festivities, the volunteers loaded toys into reusable bags and helped residents wheel the presents to their cars, also assisting those traveling on CTA.
“Our nonprofit Christmas in the Wards organization is deeply grateful to all of our corporate, business and individual sponsors, donors, supporters and volunteers. We’ve been thrilled to partner with everyone to support and empower thousands of deserving local families over the past 22 Christmas seasons,” said Huggins.
“The phenomenal expansion of these charitable program events wouldn’t have been possible without the support of all who contribute their time, resources and donations that allows us to provide a great Christmas for these families in Wards across Chicago.”
So in the final analysis, there’s one thing that you can count on: Christmas in the Wards will always seek to brighten the holidays for those in need.