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After 15 years, Brooks still finds Love Baskets experience 'fulfilling'

"It started as an outreach project," said Kay Brooks, as she sat at a table in the New Richmond United Methodist Church's basement working on gift tags. "It's really made a transformation since then."

Brooks has been a volunteer for Love Baskets for about 15 years. The project helps local families in need by collecting Christmas presents for them and food vouchers. It partners with the U.S. Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program, the Salvation Army, as well as business and individual sponsors.

"We used to be in the old Armory," Brooks explained. "It had been just for New Richmond families, but it got bigger."

Five New Richmond churches started the program about 20 years ago: United Methodist Church, St. Luke's Lutheran Church, First Baptist Church, Prairieview Covenant Church and The Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin.

A few years ago, Love Baskets combined resources with the Salvation Army/Grace Place in Somerset. They had been running a similar program called "Secret Santa" for Somerset residents. Now, under the umbrella of Love Baskets, they service both the New Richmond and Somerset communities.

Brooks said the program works like this: local individuals and families are recommended by friends, schools, churches, social agencies who recognize their need. The deadline for submissions was Friday, Dec. 2. The families are asked for lists of needs/wants for each family member. People can sponsor one family - which means they buy gifts for each person - or they can simply donate items or money.

After collecting donations at Grace Place and through the Toys for Tots program, volunteers sort them according to wish lists and wrap the presents. The presents are then delivered to the Somerset Middle School for the Christmas party on the Dec. 18.

"Our season starts in October with getting things organized," said Brooks. "Now, we are spending about one to two weeks closer to the party where we used to spend six weeks. We are much better organized, but it is intense when we do it."

She said the sorting can be strenuous, as they can't control what donations they receive to fill the wish lists. They usually receive enough presents for younger children, but not enough for older children. In those instances, they use the monetary donations to "fill in the gaps."

"We try our best to match up the lists," said Brooks. "We haven't had any complaints yet."

Suggestions for donations for older children are pajama pants, slippers, blow dryers, curling and straight irons, body wash, hoodies and art supplies. Gift cards for iTunes, Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart are especially appreciated; those can be mailed to Love Baskets, Box 222, Somerset, Wis., 54025.

When the program first started, Love Baskets served about 100 families. This year, they are up to 300 families.

"The beauty of it is there are a lot of people and organizations that are donating time and energy, so it's really becoming a community service," said Brooks.

For more information about Love Baskets, contact the Salvation Army/Grace Place at 715-247-2944.

Brooks said not only do the recipient families reap the benefits, but as a volunteer, she does too.

"We definitely see a payback," she began. "One woman who lived at the shelter now plays Mrs. Claus every year. Another man pays it back by being a greeter. In addition, Grace Place has a bulletin board full of thank you cards. It is really fulfilling."