A Christmas party for underprivileged children in Granite City, Venice and Madison was filled with both happy and heart-breaking moments.
Joe Schuler posed as Santa Claus while volunteers handed out toys, hats, scarves, gloves, socks, fruit, non-perishable food and other items.
Several children tried to give Joe their treat bags so he would have something to eat. He turned them down, noting his belly already was too big.
"I asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas, and some of them couldn't even say," said Joe, 43, of Collinsville. "They just kind of looked at me. They know the situation. They don't have anything.
"Several of them said things like, 'I want a place to live,' or 'I want my mom to get a job.' It was very moving."
Joe couldn't help but draw a contrast between these and other children, who can quickly list brand names, models and catalog pages for gifts they hope to receive.
Joe is board chairman for Tri-Cities Area Division of United Way of Greater St. Louis and a manager with Mastercard. He organized the party with his six siblings.
They were carrying on a tradition started 40 years ago by their mother, the late Billie Schuler, a member of Tri-Cities Area Chamber of Commerce (now Chamber of Commerce of Southwestern Madison County) Women's Division.
"My mom was really dedicated to children in this community," said Joe's sister, Paula Hubbard, 57, of Granite City.
The chamber decided to stop sponsoring the Billie's Kids Christmas party this year, so the siblings jumped into action with help from United Way, Coordinated Youth and Human Services and Granite City School District.
They invited 95 children to gather in the Granite City Township building on Dec. 14. Social workers made referrals to Paula, who is special education director.
The siblings collected more than $5,000 worth of items and cash donations from local businesses and residents to be distributed at the party.
"It turned out great, even with the snow," Paula said. "We had seven families who didn't show up. We knew that four of them were homeless, and that it might be hard for them to make it, but we got their gifts to them."
Vivian O'Brian came to the party with her grandchildren David O'Brian, 11, Gary Moss, 7, and Kaylie Moss, 5, who live with her and her husband, Donald.
The kids enjoyed activities such as face-painting and ornament-making. The extra gifts will help the family stay within their Christmas budget.
"My grandson, Gary, has been asking me and my husband for a set of walkie talkies, and that's what he got (at the party)," said Vivian, 59, a school building aide.
The other five siblings who volunteered at the party are Cindy Gavilsky, Allan Schuler and Terry Mitchell, of Granite City; Cathy Dummerth, of South St. Louis; and Fred Schuler, of Franklin, Tenn. Father Paul Schuler formerly served as Granite City mayor.
Next year, Joe will chair the Tri-Cities United Way fundraising campaign. He encourages people to help as much as they can.
"The need for basic services, including food, has never been greater in this community," he said. "It's really, really heart-breaking. That's why our family felt compelled to (organize the Christmas party)."