The holiday season is officially in full swing, which means that most locals are flocking to stores to find gifts for friends and loved ones and filling up the dates in their calendars with festive social gatherings and other holiday functions.
But for dozens of area adults with special needs, the holidays can be an especially lonely time, especially those who don't have family or friends to enjoy the magic of the holidays with.
This December, however, 150 adults will feel the love that everyone wants to feel during the holidays, many thanks to one Riverside mother/son duo who, for the past five years, have helped spearhead local gift donations for UCP Seguin's Secret Santa Drive.
Since 2009, UCP Seguin, a Cicero-based nonprofit serving individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities throughout the near-west suburbs, has sponsored a Secret Santa Drive for adults over 18 who live in group homes throughout the area.
Even though these residents are under the care of health professionals, many in UCP Seguin's residential program either have no family in the area or are wards of the state.
So each year for Secret Santa, case managers from UCP Seguin collect Christmas gift wish lists from residents throughout the fall, ensuring everyone on the list has at least five items. Gift requests cover a wide range, with residents asking for everything from sweaters, pajamas and winter hats to items that fit their hobbies and interests like movies, comic books and sports equipment.
The Riverside/UCP Seguin connection came into play back in 2014, when resident Jake Shevitz -- then 9 years old -- told his mom he wanted to give all the money in his piggy bank to someone in the community who needed it more.
When Shevitz's mom, Amy Jacksic, showed him some information she saw about UCP Seguin's Secret Santa Drive and talked about residents from the program living in Riverside, Shevitz said he wanted to use his money to purchase gifts off the wish list of one of the residents.
But Jacksic had an even better idea.
"After putting some thought into it, I was fairly confident if I reached out to my circle of friends, we could fulfill not just one wish on their list, but most likely every single wish -- and we did," she said.
That first year, after spreading the word to Riverside neighbors and friends, mom and son collected 36 gifts to donate to the Riverside group home. The duo enjoyed the effort so much, they decided to team up again with UCP Seguin and collect presents for residents living in group homes in Berwyn, Broadview, Brookfield, Cicero, Forest Park, Lyons, North Riverside, Riverside and Stickney.
Since that first year, Shevitz and Jacksic have helped plan the Secret Santa Drive with UCP Seguin organizers, gathering wish lists and setting up donor signups through the website SignUpGenius.com. There, participants can find the first name, age, and location of each resident participant and sign up to sponsor someone.
Donors are asked to wrap each gift and clearly label them with the recipient's name and location and then drop off the gifts in designated locations throughout Riverside. From there, Shevitz and Jacksic then collect the gifts and deliver them to UCP Seguin for final distribution.
In their second year of participating, the team was able to collect 79 gifts. In year three, the donations more than doubled to 177, and last year, they collected 219.
This season, the team collected 354 gifts, with donors coming from both the Riverside/Brookfield/North Riverside area and neighboring villages, including Oak Park and River Forest.
Shevitz loves seeing the donations growing year after year, and the desire of his neighbors to give has further fueled his passion to help the cause.
"I feel it's important for everyone to be as happy as they can be, especially around the holiday season, and if this organization helps someone achieve that happiness, I'm all for it and want to assist in any way I can," he said.
Along with teaming up for a good cause, Jacksic says it warms her heart to see her son's "wonderful and giving" spirit.
"He knows that he kind of lives a comfortable life and he never asks for much when it comes to the holidays," she said. "It's just nice to see that he is a giver rather than a receiver."
Ashley Casati, director of Case Management for UCP Seguin, who has been in charge of the program for the past seven years, says the efforts of Jacksic and Shevitz and the generous network of givers they've created over the years has been "amazing."
"The first year, I was just stunned at how many people were involved in the community and their willingness to get involved," Casati said.
With the Secret Santa Drive benefitting adults of all ages — this year, up to age 87 — Casati said UCP Seguin residents now anticipate Christmas each year with smiles on their faces.
"We believe everybody needs to wake up Christmas morning and have at least one present," she said. "This program is really important for those individuals because they are getting things they might otherwise not get the opportunity to have."
To Shevitz, the Secret Santa Drive has demonstrated the power that comes when neighbors join together to help people in need.
"The more people we can bring together, the closer we are as a community," he said.