By Joseph Phillips
More than 700 children and their families from across the city gathered on Saturday morning (Dec. 21) at McCormick Place to help celebrate the 23rd Annual Christmas in the Wards (CITW) holiday gift/toy giveaway extravaganza for Chicago’s underprivileged communities.
The annual holiday event, founded and hosted by local businessman Larry Huggins, brought together families and their elected ward officials to “help celebrate the Christmas Holiday.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle were also in attendance.
“You know it’s amazing,” said Huggins, about the event and how it’s grown over the years. “This event started two decades ago. Christmas in the Wards thanks the extreme generosity of a dynamic group of businesses, corporate partners and individuals able to make happy holiday dreams a definite reality.”
Originally, Huggins founded the Christmas in the Wards event two decades ago as “Christmas in Englewood.” And after two decades of success, Huggins, CEO of Riteway-Huggins Construction, has now managed to expand the event across the city.
To celebrate the organization’s 23rd year, Huggins recruited 23 aldermen from across the city to give away thousands of toys and tech gifts to nearly 700 underserved families at McCormick Place. A few aldermen commented about what the event meant to them and how children are selected throughout the process.
“Christmas In The Wards to me is the opportunity to provide for children in my community that may not have the opportunity to celebrate Christmas the way I think every child should,” said Alderman Michael Scott (24th Ward). “We’re able to grant their Christmas wish.”
“We depend heavily on the principals in our schools in our respected areas,” said Alderman Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward) about the families being selected for the toys process. “We don’t pick them (the children and families). Our principals pick the families in need. They pick them and they forward them to us, and we forward it [the names] back to CITW.”
According to its website, Christmas In the Wards has generated more than $2 million in charitable donations and in-kind contributions over the last two decades. The contributions have allowed the charitable organization to purchase bikes, educational games, computers and other toys for youngsters who otherwise would experience a bleak holiday, due to their parents’ inability to put anything under the tree.
“I know firsthand how the lack of resources negatively affects many people, especially during the holidays. That’s why we started this community-based initiative—to make a positive impact on the lives of others, especially children, at Christmas,” Huggins said in a past interview.
Huggins enjoys the fact that the event has brought smiles, tears of joy and true holiday spirit to thousands of deserving at-risk families from impoverished neighborhoods across the city.
The event featured more than 2,000 popular brand name toys—including numerous bicycles, scooters, Barbie dolls of all types, toy cars, trucks and much more.
In addition to the huge number of donated toys, Huggins’ organization also provided other phenomenal holiday gifts that consisted of new laptop computers for children who had achieved academically, big-screen TVs, warm coats, socks, hats and scarves. The organization’s partners were amazed to see how the event has impacted so many lives.
“We’re happy that we have good partners in the city of Chicago that help provide opportunities for children in our area and respective wards,” said Alderman Sawyer. “It’s a great day when you see our children get presents and they are happy walking out with bikes and Easy Bake ovens and presents we provided for them. It’s a great day. It’s what Christmas is really all about…. giving.”
“You can’t do things like this without a good staff behind you,” said Everett Rand, a partner of the CITW as he discussed the vision of the organization. “It’s a combination of a dream that became a reality.”
Donovan Pepper, national director of government relations for Walgreens and 10-year partner with CITW, said: “This is our 10th year of being involved with Christmas In The Wards. We have a wonderful time supporting the community and residents of Chicago.”
In a past interview Huggins stated: “Everyday items many of us take for granted are often unattainable by low-income families and children in Chicago. [I] realized many disadvantaged Englewood residents could not travel
to other Chicago neighborhoods where holiday giveaways were held. Hence, Christmas In the Wards was born.”
CITW was developed in partnership with successful brother entrepreneurs Everett Rand of Midway Wholesalers and Tim Rand of MAC-One. In addition to the strong partnerships of CITW, Mayor Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Preckwinkle spoke briefly during the event about the positive impact that CITW has had on the community. The event was moderated by WGN News anchor Tahman Bradley.
(Photos by Kimiya King and Damon Smith)