Holiday traditions build lifelong memories. They help us bond and reconnect with loved ones, friends and neighbors.
They also give us the opportunity to give back.
Twenty-three years ago, Gwen Conley asked colleagues for small donations so she could buy several pairs of warm socks and give them to the men in need at a local shelter for Christmas.
A professional real estate agent, Conley was now in a position to make a difference in other people’s lives, just as some generous, caring people had done in her past. When she was a child, Conley’s single mother was ill, and their money ran out. Friends of the family kindly invited them into their home, and on Christmas morning surprised her with gifts including a basket of food, a pair of warm gloves and some warm socks for her mother’s feet.
A few years later, Conley learned about the Manna for Hammond Soup Kitchen at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Hohman Avenue where hungry people from all over the Calumet region – men, women and children – enjoy a home-cooked meal every week day at noon.
Since then, with contributions and assistance from her esteemed colleagues, Conley has been “making spirits bright” with plenty of warm socks, gloves, hats, treats and toys for everyone who attends the Soup Kitchen’s annual festive meal on the Thursday preceding Christmas. Even after she retired in early 2010, Conley continued to oversee the entire production – from budgeting and shopping the sales so she could stretch every last dollar to wrapping, transporting and distributing the gifts.
“I’ve been here since it started,” Bonnie Kotso, an agent with RE/MAX Realty Associates in Munster, said. “Gwen would gather donations and every year it grew. It’s a good feeling, especially when you see the children there.”
“For many years I had the good fortune of playing Santa Claus alongside Gwen’s Mrs. Claus,” Herm Hoge, broker/owner along with his wife Kris of RE/MAX Realty Associates, said. “Unfortunately, due to health reasons, she now inspires us to carry on the tradition. It’s just Santa and the elves for now.”
Tammy Jacobson, who has been working in the RE/MAX Realty Associates office for 14 years, handles the special Christmas budget and lets everyone know the deadline for contributions so the elves responsible for shopping have plenty of time to get the very best deals.
“This year we were able to order six dozen pairs of socks each for the men, women and children and ten dozen hats and gloves for each,” Jamie Campbell, who has worked at the front desk for four years, said. “You can only hope it’s enough. It’s all about the balancing the budget.”
For Ashley Fayette, who has been with RE/MAX Realty Associates for just one year, it didn’t take long to understand the meaning of, “It’s that time of year again!”
“This event touches a lot of people’s lives,” she said. “So when it’s time to contribute, everyone in the office looks forward to it. It’s amazing how much everybody loves it!”
Just ask former employee Melissa Cumbee, who along with her husband Jeff, has made generous toy donations on behalf of their business, Platinum Systems Specialists, Inc. the last couple of years.
“I was with RE/MAX for a total of five years,” she said. “I always had to stay back at the office so I never got to go, but I always enjoyed hearing the stories and seeing the pictures. After I got married and started working with my husband, I still wanted to help out. In the past agents were asked to buy the toys, but knowing how busy they are, last year I offered to help out and do some of the shopping. It worked out so well that Jeff and I did all the shopping this year.”
Cumbee was also happy to have the opportunity to join Santa and the elves at the Soup Kitchen this year.
Following the annual staff pot luck hosted by the Hoges, where agents pitch in to fill treat bags and wrap gifts, the real estate agent “sleighs” are loaded up and Santa leads the charge down Hohman.
“My agents are really highly productive agents so they are very, very busy people right now,” Herm Hoge said. “We haven’t been this busy in mid-December for a good number of years. Even so, we had a full house helping us with the gifts last week and a good-size group for the main event. We also had support from our friends at Region Title, Fidelity Title and Chicago Title as well as Centier Bank which once again provided the equipment and supplies for the photos with Santa which are always a big hit.”
Now, all that’s left is for Santa, who has been growing his hair and beard since Labor Day, to finally get a hair cut, while all the elves start making plans for next year – just as Gwen did for so many years!