By Tricia Goecks


BELVIDERE –After Mike Carlson passed away on Feb. 23, 2014 following a sudden illness, his widow Barbara was not certain that she would be able to find the strength to participate in the Joy of Christ Community Toy Distribution at Evangelical Covenant Church.

And then while moving to a new home she saw it.

A spiral notebook.

In her husband’s handwriting.

Mike Carlson had left comprehensive plans detailing how the toy drive should be organized. The notebook was filled with names and phone numbers of volunteers and distribution sites, plans for where toys should be set up, how to manage the flow of people. Everything was in there.

Barbara Carlson felt like it was a message from her husband to continue their work with the annual toy distribution. Although Mike Carlson was not into Christmas, when it came to the toy distribution he was all in.

Many members of the Carlson family gathered ten months to the day after his death to distribute toys to the needy on Dec. 23. It was a bittersweet moment for Carlson’s sister Valerie Gunn who dedicated her participation in her brother’s memory.

At 28 businesses, churches and organizations throughout Boone County, volunteers put out bins to collect toys, hats and socks. During the month of December, the rooms in the lower level of Covenant Evangelical Church slowly filled up to overflowing with toys. Each room was designated for an age group and gender.

The Belvidere Police Department donated abandoned bicycles to the cause.  The bicycles were refurbished by Blueges Bike Shop.  Rule changes made last January by the Belvidere City Council facilitated the donation process. Previous rules required Belvidere chief of police to receive City Council approval for distribution of unclaimed property.  Rules that were adopted last January allow for the Chief of Police Jan Noble to allocate items worth less than $150 at his discretion.

Earlier in the week, paramedics from OSF Lifeline Ambulance delivered an ambulance filled with toys. OSF Lifeline Ambulance began their involvement with the program in 2010 when Ron Wait, who was the area’s state representative at the time, told Jenny Tirado and another paramedic about the program. “That night at 9 at night we made about a dozen phone calls. Just that night alone we raised $500 from our fellow co-workers,” Tirado explained. “The next day we called St. Anthony’s and we told them about it and how the community was really struggling. They donated about $1,000.”

Since that time, with contributions from OSF St. Anthony Hospital as well as employee donations from the hospital and OSF Lifeline paramedics, Tirado has been able to deliver an ambulance filled with toys and gifts every year since.

On Dec. 23, nearly 100 volunteers and nearly 1,000 people gathered at the church.  Yellow tape was set up to create a series of switchbacks outside of the church for clients to pass through as they arrived as early as 5 p.m.  At 6:30 p.m. the doors of the church were opened and the clients filled up the church from the back pews to the front. After a quick greeting from Santa Claus who was on hand and a short prayer, the pews were emptied one by one and the clients made their way down the stairway into the church basement.

In the basement, volunteers stood in front of a blue tarp that concealed the rooms where the toys were stored. The volunteers enthusiastically greeted the clients who in turn presented a sheet of paper that included the age and gender of their children.

Volunteers took the slips of paper and ducked behind the blue tarp to get a large plastic bag and get toys for the children.

Assisting in selecting the toys was Bianca Hernandez who has been volunteering with the community toy distribution for approximately 20 years. She has been involved in the program since the days when Reverend Don Norek distributed toys to children near the apartments behind Dodge Lanes Bowling Alley.

“I would come with my mom and we would help out and do whatever we can,” Hernandez said. “It felt good to give back to those who are less fortunate.”

Hernandez continuing the tradition and example set for her by her mother by bringing her young daughter Riley Leutik to help her volunteer. Riley was happily gathering toys to give to the volunteers. “I hope she takes it with her as she grows older and sees that it is nice to help out others,” Hernandez remarked.

“I like helping mommy give gifts to kids,” Riley chirped.

“It really brings back the spirit of Christmas for us,” Tirado added. “There is a selfish part of me that does it because it warms my heart.”

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