Volunteers keep Woodstock's Christmas Clearinghouse tradition going

Published: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013 5:53 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013 11:02 p.m. CDT
(Kyle Grillot – kgrillot@shawmedia.com)
Volunteers including Jim Potthast of the Woodstock Rotary Club (center left) help distribute thousands of boxes of food, toys and clothing Saturday during the Christmas Clearinghouse in Woodstock. Their efforts will provide supplies for local families, delivered by hundreds of volunteers throughout the day.

WOODSTOCK – The wheels on a metal conveyer line rustled and squeaked as box after food-filled box rounded a corner from warehouse to bay door.

Just beyond a gaggle of busy volunteers, the entryway opened to a cavernous space where hundreds of boxes and bags brimmed with apples, oranges, canned goods and more. Beyond the boxes and canvas grocery bags stood a sea of red bags stuffed with toys.

It was all part of Woodstock’s Christmas Clearinghouse, a tradition started about four decades ago by the local Girl Scouts and now run by the Woodstock Noon Rotary Club.

The effort involves hundreds of volunteers and contributions from Toys for Tots, businesses and individuals, said Tom Nierman, a Rotarian who managed the warehouse and made sure everything was ship shape for distribution day Saturday.

“The planning for this starts in July,” Nierman said. “The entire community makes this happen.”

A stream of cars lined up outside of the former Farm and Fleet site at Routes 47 and 14. Woodstock Harley-Davidson now owns the building and donated the space.

“Four!” shouted a Santa-hat-bedecked Al Schmitt as he sized up the available space within a tan Buick Enclave.

Quick as elves, volunteers brought and packed into the van four canvas grocery bags containing frozen turkeys, fresh lettuce and more; four open-faced boxes brimming with fresh fruits and nonperishables; four closed boxes containing Christmas dinner fixings; four gallons of milk; and four red toy bags. At the effort’s mid-morning peak, two lanes of delivery vehicles snaked through.

Event Chairman Joe Starzynski said the Christmas Clearinghouse was among the first things he learned about after moving to Woodstock in the early ’90s.

The event this year assisted about 1,200 families, each averaging three to four people. Area social service agencies and school officials supply lists, and volunteers deliver within District 200 boundaries, said Starzynski, also a Woodstock City Council member.

“I’m not Christian myself,” said Starzynski, who is Jewish. “But I think the whole spirit of Christmas is to help others [and] I believe a really healthy, good place to live is one where people help other people.”

Katie Palmer, a 16-year-old Crystal Lake South High School student, volunteered as a toy runner. She accompanied Woodstock resident Tom Lafontaine as part of a crew from Ridgefield Presbyterian Church.

“I think this is great,” Palmer said. “It’s a good feeling.”

Denise Graff Ponstein couldn’t agree more. Now the food and toy procurement chairman, she started volunteering for the Clearinghouse when she, too, was in high school.

“When you see the little kids’ eyes light up when they see that bright red toy bag come in, it makes it all worth it,” she said.

One west-side resident and single mom of a 14- and a 20-year-old said she was immensely grateful to all who helped make Saturday’s distribution happen.

“It’s an awesome, awesome organization,” she said as she awaited her donations. “I have nothing but kind words. They don’t judge anyone. … I am really grateful.”

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