BRADLEY, Ill. | An outpost of Santa's North Pole operation is outgrowing its space in Bradley.
It's not a toy manufacturing facility. It's the home of Sherri Funk, a woman who discovered an army of volunteers when she followed up on a plan she hatched for a college class project. That idea has grown into a nonprofit Santa substitute that's changing the lives of at least 50 local families this holiday season.
"It all started when I was taking a class in social work at Governors State University," said Funk, the founder of SANTA Inc., a state-registered charity.
"I was looking for a homeless teen project, and I started talking with the social worker at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School," she said. "We started with one family five years ago. Last year we had 35, and this year we're up to 50."
It's growing, she said, because families, work groups and government offices are stepping forward to adopt needy families. It puts some pressure on Funk's relationship with social workers at BBCHS, Bourbonnais Upper Grade Center and Bradley grade schools, making sure they're finding deserving families for the anonymous benefactors.
"No one applies to be adopted," she said. "And we don't buy iPads and other luxuries. The social workers check with families, and then I talk to them about their needs. We get sizes and I try to find out other household needs."
That means Funk, who works at Peddinghaus Corp. in Bradley and Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee, spends her off-duty time shopping for socks, underwear and other necessities, as well as grocery store gift cards and other family basics. And, when she brings it all home, she's designated one room of the house as a wrapping center.
"My husband (Tom) is a great help. I store some stuff at his business warehouse," she said. "But the biggest part of this is just the generosity of all the people who want to adopt. I'm not naive. I know that some people 'work the system.' They take advantage of charities."
She noted, though, that going through school personnel helps eliminate that possibility. And Funk said she does take a realistic attitude toward the gifts her group provides.
"I focus on the children," she said. "Maybe there are a few parents who aren't the best role models, but that doesn't mean the kids don't deserve a nice Christmas."
While she's getting more support than ever from groups adopting multiple families, Funk said her organization still needs paper products, laundry soap, dish soap and shampoo, as well as nonperishable food items. And while those items aren't the traditional contents of brightly wrapped packages, she looks at the big picture.
"The hardest thing to have to give a child for Christmas?" Funk asked and answered. "Socks, underwear and feminine products."
But she explained again, her mission isn't to provide luxuries, but to make a hard existence a little more comfortable for the holidays.
"The best part of this is wondering if the families open gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day ... and hoping we made someone's holiday a little better," Funk said. "Believe me, I think about it all day Christmas Eve and Christmas Day."