The Adopt a Child for Christmas Program at the Christian Activity Center in East St. Louis started with one child 25 years ago.
"I went to this kid's house a day after Christmas and the little boy, maybe about 6, was crying his eyes out," said the center's executive director, the Rev. Chet Cantrell. "He was sitting in front of the crucifix in his house and praying and praying and crying and crying. I asked him what was wrong and he told me that he had tried really hard to be good all year and he had prayed and he couldn't understand why Santa never came to his house."
That year, Christmas came on Dec. 27 for the boy, and every year since, Cantrell and the Christian Activity Center have worked to make Christmas morning a bit more joyful for members of the center and their families.
The center sits in the Samuel Gompers housing projects in the Olivette Park neighborhood in East St. Louis. It is a safe place where children can learn, receive tutoring, participate in a wide-variety of educational programming and activities, have a snack and make friends. The center's core programming emphasizes education, technology, spiritual development, arts/recreation and emotional wellness. The center is paid for mostly through private donations from individuals, organizations, churches, corporations and fundraisers.
"I never really realized how many people just cannot do Christmas," Cantrell said of his early years at the center. "They just cannot. They try hard, but they can't."
So far this year, 460 children who regularly attend educational, spiritual and enrichment programming at the nonprofit center are part of the Adopt a Child for Christmas Program. The center still needs about 160 more people willing to Adopt a Child for Christmas to sponsor the children who are regular attendees. Some of the children are recommended by the Family Living Center homeless shelter. The children who attend the center five days a week are selected first and as more children are sponsored, more wish lists can be fulfilled. In all, 630 children have turned in applications and wish lists, hoping to be part of the program.
The children or their parents fill out wish lists with their names, age, size and a few things they'd like to have for Christmas. Many of the asked for items are typical: Bikes, toys, electronics, a Kindle Fire, an iPod, shoes and puppies. Some are basic needs: Beds, dressers, clothes, underwear, socks, coats, hats and gloves. Still other Christmas wishes are intangible: "my mama to find a job," "no shooting by my house," "my family to find a place to live," "a house instead of apartment," the wish lists read.
"People can sponsor a child and we send them a name and the kid's wish list and they go shopping for the child," Cantrell explained. "They wrap the gifts and bring them back to us and we give the gifts to the family."
The parents take the gifts home and are the gift-givers on Christmas morning.
Gifts should be wrapped and delivered to the center by Dec. 15.
People also can let someone else do the shopping by making a donation to the center and specify it be used for the Adopt a Child for Christmas Program.
"We fill the whole gym up," Cantrell said. Last year about 700 kids were sponsored or adopted for Christmas. "People are very generous and good. It's amazing to me. It feels good and I'm so grateful for the people who help our kids."
Thirteen-year-old Brandon Moore has been attending CAC activities regularly for nine years and has been part of the Christmas program for six years. This year, his wish list includes a bike and headphones for his iPod.
"I think it's a great experience being here," he said of his time at the center. "I know all the staff, I have great friends and no one bullies me here. Chet, to me, he's like a father, and he treats everyone with respect, including me. I love everyone on the staff. We share ideas with each other. I started coming here because I had no where else to go."
Brandon said he is grateful and thankful for the people who sponsor children for Christmas.
Arkashia Branch, 13, also has been a regular at the center for eight years. She started coming to the center when she was in kindergarten and loves everything about it.
"It's safe here," she said. "If I was out there, I'd probably get in more fights and I'd definitely be bored."
Her wish list this year includes an iPad, clothes, jewelry and a phone. Last year, she asked for clothes, but her sponsor gifted her with much more than she expected.
"I got a journal that I love and a Bible that I love. It's a Bible for girls that has questions in it that you answer. I got hats and gloves and a hoodie," she said. "I was surprised. They gave me rings and gave my little sister shoes. It made me so happy. It made me feel good and made me smile all the time. They went shopping for us and sent us gifts and they don't even know us. That was really caring and really nice of them to do that."
For more information about sponsoring a child for the Adopt a Child for Christmas Program, contact Margaret McCurdy at 217-416-8181 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional information about the program and center can be found at www.cacesl.org.
The center also accepts donations to help with programming and operations. Among the center's needs are: Black hardback sketchbooks, locked diaries for girls, winter coats, boots, hats, gloves, socks and underwear in all sizes, lined school paper (college and wide ruled, loose-leaf and notebooks), pens, pencils, markers, binders, backpacks, coloring books, puzzles, 39-gallon trash bags, 13-gallon trash bags, green all-purpose cleaner, toilet tissues, liquid hand soap, paper towels, copy paper, toner for a Ricoh Aficio 3501 printer-copier, dodgeballs, soccer balls, chess boards, and the board games Trouble, Kerplunk, Mancala and Battleship.
Contact reporter Jennifer A. Schaaf at email@example.com or 618-239-2667.
The Christian Activity Center kicks off the News-Democrat's annual Giving from the Heart charity series. The series aims to connect readers to organizations to help the less fortunate -- especially during this time of year, a time of giving. Every day a new nonprofit group will be featured through New Year's Day. We'll tell BND readers how to help.
If you know of a charity that should be included in the Giving from the Heart series, contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at 618-239-2460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.