Local groups brings families holiday cheer


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Two brown eyes peered just barely over the top of a folding table. The little girl, 21⁄2 years old with a rainbow stocking cap perched on her head, watched silently as cans of corn, pumpkin, and pinto beans were packaged up for her mother.

This holiday season marks the 22nd year for Project Holiday — a collaboration among four Johnson County agencies to ensure local families their own piece of holiday cheer.

"To see the smiles on people's faces is tremendous," said Brooke Anstoetter, a volunteer coordinator for the Johnson County Crisis Center.

Project Holiday consists of three main parts: a complete holiday meal for families, gifts for their children, and gift cards and delivery for the homebound and disabled.

Project Holiday began in 1985 as a collaboration between the Johnson County Crisis Center and Domestic Violence Intervention Program to help lower-income families.

Today, the project is an effort among the Crisis Center, Salvation Army, Goodwill, and Elderly Services, and it started distributing meals and toys Wednesday.

Beth Ritter Ruback, communications and development at the Crisis Center said the project has seen an increase of clientele over the years.

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"I think as people learn about it, and, of course, what we've seen [of] the effect our economy has had on the area, I think it's grown," she said.

This year, the Crisis Center is providing meals to roughly 1,400 households, an increase over last year's 1,250, Ritter Ruback said.

With the collaboration of numerous organizations, Ritter Ruback admits the success of the project is a continuous "leap of faith," with a large dependence on donations and support from the community to make the project a reality.

But, she said, it always seems to work out in the end.

Businesses and other organizations such as churches throughout the county distribute tags to volunteers listing specific items needed, such as $15 donations to cover the cost of a meal or toys for the gender and age described.

Salvation Army Capt. Jennifer Smith and her husband oversaw the toy distribution Thursday; they have both worked with the Iowa City Salvation Army and Project Holiday for the past nine years.

"For me, Christmas is about giving and not receiving," Smith said.

Seeing the smiles of the families, she said, makes it all worthwhile.

More than 1,200 children will receive gifts this season — two toys and a stocking stuffer.

"I'm a parent myself, so I can't imagine having no gifts under the Christmas tree," Ritter Ruback said. "Family time, no one can underestimate how important that is."

Surrounded by boxes full of food, seven-year volunteer Marilyn Husak said the volunteering experience puts the holiday season into perspective.

"For me, this is what it's all about," she said.

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