CHICAGO (CBS) – For the last 76 years, Catholic Charities has continued its Celebration of Giving for the holiday season.
Every year, thousands of families throughout Cook and Lake counties receive generous gifts for Christmas. This year, the preparation happens inside a 17,000-square-foot warehouse in Fulton Market that has been transformed into Santa's Chicago Workshop.
"There's a lot of logistics that go in it and there's so many generous people that are involved," said Catholic Charities Senior Director of Programs Operations, Noreen Russo.
Gifts are loaded onto Santa's sleigh by many people, businesses, and parishes, across Chicago before arriving at the workshop to be unloaded by elves.
"We have tons and tons of volunteers that help us get through this whole process," Russo said.
Last year, more than 15,000 people received presents and additional support. Russo has been at the helm, ensuring wish lists are met and rounding up the elves to sort through donations.
"I'm definitely one of Santa's elves. We're pre-viable making a list checking it twice here," said volunteer Bill Suenkens.
On Tuesday, Suenkens participated with his U.S. Bank team for some holiday team building.
"We're all so blessed with our jobs and careers, and everything to be able to give back and help out the community is something that we really love doing," he said.
That is why he has found himself here during December for the last 10 years. The job and the mission never change.
"We're sorting through all the incoming gifts from donors," he said.
Suenkens has sorted and prepared tens of thousands of gifts over the years all for strangers in need.
"We're seeing everything from cookware to comforters, blankets, clothing, pajamas, action figures, games, educational things, we've had bikes scooters. Everything from toddlers to teenagers," Suenkens said.
But they are still short of gifts for those ages 10 to 18 and children under the age of 1.
"The need is across the board, and it seems to grow every year."
For those ages 10-18, Russo says electronics and gift cards work best. Gift cards allow teens to shop for themselves.
While there may be a lack of gifts for some there isn't a lack of heart amongst the volunteer staff.
"It just warms our heart. As we're packing it kind of feels like we're touching the lives of the people we're serving here. It's really heartwarming especially this time of year. And you know, knowing people are going to have a nice holiday because of this," Suenkens said.
A warm heart is what has kept John Bradshaw returning for the last 15 years, although he now lives in Florida.
"The bags seemed a lot lighter back then…or I got much older," Bradshaw said.
Regardless, the hard work is what helps these elves find the true meaning of Christmas.
"Christmas to me means, family, friends, hope and you know blessings," Suenkens said.
And these elves can't make it happen alone.
"Please give with all your heart. People need help. They need things. They need the love of the people of Chicago," Bradshaw said.
If you would like to donate, visit www.catholiccharities.net/celebration.
To volunteer, e-mail COG@catholiccharities.net
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