SYCAMORE – An annual charitable tradition that was started by an anonymous assistant attorney to the city of Chicago 114 years ago lives on in the generous acts of DeKalb County residents known as the Goodfellows.
According to Goodfellows of DeKalb and Sycamore, the Christmastime initiative was started in 1909 – when a man published an anonymous letter in the Chicago Tribune calling for good fellows (of any gender) to volunteer to deliver presents (of any value) to less advantaged children on Christmas Eve.
The call to action was published on Dec. 10, 1909. Three days later, according to the Chicago Tribune, 1,011 good fellows had signed up to help 7,610 Chicago children. As word of the good tiding spread, some began to emulate the anonymous gift giving elsewhere. The Goodfellows never became a national organization but the tradition of giving Christmas gifts to children on Christmas Eve has taken hold in DeKalb County.
“It’s a way for people to share Christmas magic with kids who may not receive much for Christmas. They’ll get toys from different programs, Toys for Tots or whatever,” said Christel Springmire, of Sycamore, who for the past 20 years has been volunteering and donating with the Goodfellows of DeKalb and Sycamore.
Organization president Sandy Lancaster, 66, said no one is entirely sure when the initiative gained its footing in DeKalb County but she said she knows it predates her.
“Goodfellows isn’t a national organization. We don’t pay in dues, there’s no hierarchy. ... A group of volunteers in an area decide this is something they want to take on. We think it started in DeKalb, Sycamore in the 1950s,” Lancaster said.
On Dec. 13, the DeKalb County Goodfellows met at Blumen Gardens, 403 Edward St. in Sycamore, for a Christmas gift wrapping party.
The numerous gifts wrapped that night were not bought for family members or friends. Instead they will be delivered to 1,111 children by volunteers on Christmas Eve. Lancaster said it’s the second highest number of children in need that Goodfellows of DeKalb and Sycamore have seen since they began.
The volunteers will reconvene at Blumen Gardens Christmas Eve morning before setting out to deliver presents the children. For some, the volunteering has become a family tradition.
Ryan Hannan, 37, has been helping out with the Goodfellows since he was a child.
“My dad has been with the Goodfellows since the ‘80s, so growing up I would always help out with deliveries. And the older I got, and the more I understood the meaning of Goodfellows, made me want to volunteer more. So about 10 years ago I started to really get more involved – I was back from school – and I’ve been on the board now for probably six to seven years,” Hannan said.
Having seen the group grow over the course of this lifetime, Hannan said he think’s the charitable spirit of DeKalb County residents is amazing.
“Every year it grows more. The support from the community is just incredible. Every year we get new people coming, new people shopping, new people wrapping, new people delivering, so the more we can get the word out the better,” Hannan said.
The gifts aren’t the only purchase the volunteers need to make. Boxes, wrapping paper, bows, tape, scissors and gift bags are all needed to give area children proper Christmas gifts. The organization’s leaders also pay for the group’s expenses out of their own pocket if donations fall short, Lancaster said.
Those expenses, however, are something these good fellows are OK paying because they say they understand the impact of their work.
“Goodfellows provides such generous gifts for kids, boots and coats, and mittens and hats, and pajamas and underwear, things that sometimes parents are too stretched to provide,” said Springmire, 65. “And Santa can’t bring all of that stuff.”