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NIU students bring joy to teens in foster care this Christmas through gift drive

December 12, 2018

Teens in foster care throughout Illinois often are forgotten when it comes to Christmas gift donations, but not at NIU.

Students in two group-communication classes taught by Department of Communication professor David Henningsen collected nearly 1,000 gifts to give to Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois (LCFS) this season.

Load by load, students filled a truck driven this week to NIU by LCFS volunteers Gary and Marilyn Wenzel of Oak Park. The volunteers then took the gifts to the agency’s “toy store.” Caseworkers “shop” for gifts to give to foster parents, who, in turn, give them to older children in their care.

A leading provider of child welfare services for those who’ve experienced trauma, LCFS aims to give Christmas presents every year to nearly 2,000 children in Illinois.

“We do serve quite a few teenagers,” said Leslie Lopez of LCFS. “We believe they deserve Christmas gifts as well, but we have a harder time gathering those gifts.”

For the past seven years, Henningsen has done his part to fill that void. In that time, his students have donated more than 10,000 gifts.

He became familiar with LCFS when the agency completed a home study before he and his wife, Mary Lynn Henningsen, also a Department of Communication professor at NIU, adopted two children.

As part of an engaged-learning project, David Henningsen challenges students to come up with business plans on how to help LCFS. Students are not required to collect donations, but, every year, they do.

“It’s their thing,” Henningsen said of the 26 students participating this year. “I don’t do it at all. It’s the students who do it entirely. It’s their work and their effort that should get the credit.”

His hope is the entire project serves as a learning tool, as well as something they can talk about on job interviews and feel good about.

As several students, including seniors Austin Schweitzer and Sutton Smith and junior Antonio Jones-Davis, loaded the gifts, the Wenzels told them, “You’re making a huge impact.”

Among the piles were footballs, makeup, backpacks, electronics and more. Graduating this December, Schweitzer of Crystal Lake said he tried to collect gifts the teens would enjoy and use. With 283 gifts, his group of five students collected the most out of the six groups participating.

Also graduating this December, Stephany Chalcraft of Carpentersville and the fellow students in her group distributed flyers around campus asking for donations at booths set up at the library.

“It was a lot of fun, especially knowing we could help so many kids,” she said.

For more information on the LCFS Christmas Drive or to donate, email [email protected] or call (708) 488-5568.

“It really just helps us bring some joy to the children in our care during what can be a difficult time for them,” Lopez said. “When you think of the holidays, you think of family. These children are away from their families.”