Do-it-yourself charity is family affair

At a glance, the scene of people unloading trucks and unpacking boxes at a Bucktown neighborhood church on a recent Saturday could have been any end-of-year donation drive for the Chicago area's less fortunate.

But instead of unacquainted volunteers who share only a desire to do good, the room included families with a decadeslong bond formed around charity and grandparents looking on as grandchildren stuffed bags with toys and games.

They share a legacy of holiday giving that each year touches the lives of hundreds of the area's poorest residents and spans three generations, tracing back to the day when salesman Al Fellinger made a split-second decision to bring Christmas to an elderly South Side woman who couldn't afford food.

"I like giving to people who don't have," said 80-year-old Bob Erzinger, a longtime friend of Fellinger's and part of the first generation of families that are at the heart of the holiday relief effort called Santa for the Very Poor. "I'm not really rich. I'd say we have everything we need. There are so many people who don't have that."

Erzinger sat in the gymnasium at St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church in Bucktown on that recent Saturday, proudly leaning on a cane as he watched his children and grandchildren organize toys, books, puzzles and coats that would be distributed to Chicago-area families.

On the other side of the gym, Mark Fellinger, 43, greeted longtime friends and volunteers, just as his late father, Al, did more than a half-century ago when he embarked on the endeavor.

The day's buzz of activity was the culmination of a year-round effort during which about 50 volunteers solicit donations, recruit help and always go into their own pockets to cover expenses.

Everyone's hard work nets tens of thousands of dollars in donations that, this year, translated to groceries, gifts, books and blankets for more than 850 families.

Shrita Davis, a 35-year-old single mother of six, heads one of those families. Since the Pullman neighborhood woman lost her job in May 2012, it's been a struggle to get through each day, to say nothing of planning for a major holiday like Christmas.

That hasn't stopped Davis from showing others kindness. The active member of the Order of the Eastern Star has served meals to the homeless with other Masons, one of whom noticed Davis' own difficult circumstances and helped her connect with Santa for the Very Poor. This year the group is providing food, toys, hats, gloves and scarves for her and her children.

"I'm blessed to have a roof over my head," Davis said. "Not everyone has that blessing. It's a blessing that you have these types of organizations and people out there willing to help."

Such kindness may not be a hand up to its recipients, but sometimes, particularly around the holidays, the kindness should be the point, said John Power, 61, of Chicago's Edgebrook neighborhood, whose family has volunteered for the group for the past several decades.

"It's funny. These days when they talk about charitable cause there's a lot of structure around it, a lot of 'teaching a man to fish,'" Power said. "There still are a lot of people who need a fish because they're hungry. We try to give someone a little bit of Christmas, a little bit of dignity, a little bit of someone caring about them this time of year."

Power said the annual project always helped keep his three children grounded and seems to be doing the same for his oldest grandchildren, Brooke and Jack, who were helping that Saturday.

"They quickly learned, for some kids, there's not a lot of Christmas," he said.

That lesson is one that was instilled in the group's founder, Al Fellinger, who in December 1956 was a young salesman knocking on doors and performing routine appliance checks on the South Side. The seed of what would become Santa for the Very Poor was planted one day that month when he opened an elderly woman's icebox and found only dishes inside because she was unable to afford groceries.

Disturbed by what he saw, Fellinger returned an hour later with bags of food.

"It was definitely in Al's nature to be that kind of a person," said Mary Beth Fellinger, whose husband died last year. In fact, by the time the couple married in the late 1950s, he already had started buying groceries and gathering winter coats for people in need. Soon their living room was overflowing with presents for the poor.

Family members say charity came easily to Fellinger, whose mother regularly delivered soup to the poor on the South Shore. Similarly, the Fellingers wanted to set an example for their four children.

"It made Christmas special and a way to kind of give back to folks," said his youngest son, Mark. "That was the key that my dad certainly wanted to instill with my family."