By Katy Macek | Photographed by Shanna Wolf
Christmas is a time of joy for many reasons. But for individuals and families in need, this time of year can be a source of anxiety or sadness.
To ease that burden, organizations big and small in the Madison area are working to put more smiles on families’ faces this holiday.
From a men’s club that collects Christmas gifts for children who are raising their siblings to a powerlifting competition in which the entry fee is a gift for a child, people are using their passions to bring together communities come Christmas Day.
Read on, be inspired and then give back yourself this holiday season (we’ve got plenty of options for you).
Powerlifting for Presents
Each December, Primal Strength and Fitness, LLC, owner Jimmy Brooks holds a powerlifting competition unlike any other he’s had at his gym. Instead of competing for prizes, fame or money, these powerlifters come together to compete for … Christmas gifts.
Brooks organizes Pushing and Pulling for Presents (formerly Squats for Tots) to raise donations for Stoughton Area Resource Team (START).
“When most people think of powerlifting or Strongman, they think of big, burly bearded guys with bald heads and tattoos up their muscles … which some people have,” Brooks says. “But powerlifters, from my experience going to different meets, are some of the nicest people you could find. Kinda scary-looking sometimes, but genuinely nice people.”
Instead of a fee, Brooks says when powerlifters register, they choose if they would like to donate a toy, bedding, clothing, hats or gloves, etc. Same goes for spectators at the event; to watch, simply bring a donation for a child in need.
The donations go to children and families in Stoughton who are identified by START.
Pushing and Pulling for Tots begins with the warmup rounds at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 7 and he hopes to have the first bench press going around noon, at Primal Strength, 318 S. Forrest St., Stoughton.
He’s excited for the event, but even more so for the ripple effects it’ll have on the community.
“It’s not about how much weight is lifted— that’s just a cool side effect of the contest; you get to see something superhuman, something unreal,” Brooks says. “But you’re also doing something unreal for these families. It’s a cool show and a great cause all at once.”
Bringing the Party to the North Side
For more than 20 years, CityChurch in Madison has partnered with the Northport Apartments and Packers Townhomes to put on a Christmas dinner and provide presents for families in low-income homes.
Interested families can fill out a form with a “wish list” of items for the whole family, and members of CityChurch choose a family to buy those items for, say CityChurch organizers Jenny and Andy Czerkas.
“The form covers everyone in the family, and they are usually pretty humble requests,” Jenny Czerkas says. “We see a lot of warm boots, warm jackets, maybe a toaster or a coffee maker.”
But more than the gifts, Jenny Czerkas says the real highlight is the Christmas dinners, held at each location the Friday and Saturday before Christmas.
More than 30 countries are represented between the apartments, Czerkases say, which provides for a “very diverse” buffet. They have also gotten to know the families well over the years and look forward to engaging conversations throughout the meal.
“Those neighborhoods have taught us more than we’ve provided,” she says. “Poverty generates stereotypes that we’ve realized just don’t pan out. These people are rich in a lot of ways that we don’t always consider: Their family structures, communities, the way these kids are treated in after-school programs.”
What started as a way to provide some short-term relief during the holidays has grown into a lifelong friendship for these communities, and the Czerkases hope they can continue partnering with them for years to come.
Helping Kids Be Kids
As president of 100 Black Men of Madison—an organization that works to empower black families and help them succeed— Floyd Rose says he’s worked with children from vastly different backgrounds.
The group’s Project SOAR works with students. Around three years ago, he and other leaders of the group began to notice many of the young teenagers they worked with were already acting as adults, caring for their younger siblings.
Rose says he was blown away by the responsibility these children had taken on themselves, and that especially came out in the holiday season. So 100 Black Men of Madison’s Christmas for Children With Responsibilities toy and donation drive was born.
“These children are giving, and they don’t even have,” Rose says. “They have a sense of responsibility that is unbelievable. They’re the heroes, and all we’re trying to do is support them.”
CCWR is a partnership between 100 Black Men of Madison via Project SOAR and the United Way of Dane County. Toys and donations can be dropped off at Group Health Cooperative, 5249 E. Terrace Dr., #8339.
Rose says 100 Black Men of Madison partners with the schools, which provide names of families who will receive the donations.
Though he believes in charitable acts throughout the year, he thinks there’s something extra rewarding about finding ways to help others this time of year.
“Depending on how you believe, this time of year is the broadest example I can think of someone being brought about to be of service to all,” Rose says. “Why would we not do something in our manner of humanity that would echo this amazing time and blessing we receive?”
No Act Too Small
For as long as she can remember, Gwen Kenney has volunteered her time at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, ushering, knitting items for various organizations, helping out at the food pantry or clothes closet and catering funerals.
After retiring, Kenney devoted even more time to her community. Her reasoning? She’s got the time.
“My feeling is, as long as I’m able to do stuff, I want to,” she says. “I have more time than I have money to give, and sometimes you just need people to show up.”
Around Christmas, they work extra hard for Shoeboxes, a program the church puts on that fills empty shoeboxes with clean underwear, socks, hats and scarves. Kenney says those are packaged and distributed throughout southwest Madison.
Every Little Bit Matters
Whether you help a neighbor bring in their groceries, shovel a driveway or organize a fundraiser, every act of service matters.
It is, after all, that mindset that makes a community a community, says Jimmy Brooks.
“I believe in a couple pillars of service: Service to self, service to family and service to community,” he says. “Strong communities can only exist if people are willing to give back and be part of them.”
HERE ARE 10 (MORE!) WAYS YOU CAN GIVE BACK TO YOUR COMMUNITY:
- DONATE BLOOD
American Red Cross is holding its 34th annual Holiday Blood Drive from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 24, at the Alliant Energy Center, 1919 Alliant Energy Center Way.
- DONATE TO THE EMPTY STOCKING CLUB
Donate to the charitable arm of the Wisconsin State Journal. This organization has been distributing toys in the Madison area since 1918. facebook.com/emptystockingclub
- OPERATION CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
Operation Help a Hero’s annual holiday project supports military families. You can “adopt” a military family, give a gift to a single service member, donate online or collect gift cards.
- GIVE A “GIFT OF HOPE”
Middleton Outreach Ministry’s Gifts of Hope allows you to purchase an online gift for someone in need in the name of a loved one. So you can help your neighbors and give the perfect present to your friends and family who have everything.
- ATTEND A CRAFT FAIR FOR A CAUSE
Middleton Outreach Ministry’s Holiday Art Fair, Dec. 7-8, at MOM Food Pantry, 3502 Parmenter St., Middleton. Browse the works of more than 60 local artists, who will all donate 20% or more of their proceeds to MOM’s homelessness prevention programs. You can purchase Gifts of Hope at this event as well.
- SPONSOR A CHILD OR FAMILY
Goodman Community Center’s Holiday Gift Sponsorship Program provides gifts for children up to 18 years old. Individuals, families or organizations can choose to sponsor as many children as they’d like. Contact Tanya Walker, [email protected] or 608-204-8034, to be assigned a child or family.
- JOIN THE CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT
Be a community scientist this season by joining the national organization Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. Visit the website to join a “circle,” which encompasses a 15-mile diameter. Then, count the birds you see or hear. The count runs Dec. 14-Jan. 5.
- SERVE A MEAL…
at The River Food Pantry (or any local homeless shelter or food pantry). riverfoodpantry.org/volunteer
- “SHARE” THE HOLIDAYS
The Road Home of Dane County’s Sharing the Holidays is also a great way to sponsor a family with children. Sign up to be matched with a family and then receive a wish list form to shop for that family.
- PICK UP UNITED WAY’S HOLIDAY WISH LIST
This booklet is a compilation of donation requests and volunteer opportunities during the holiday season. Find it at your local library. unitedwaydanecounty.org/wishlist