When Mara and Kayla Winfrey started their annual holiday hot chocolate stand to raise money for the U.S. Marines Toys for Tots program, they did not plan to continue the tradition for 20 years.
Of course, they were 2 and 4 years old at the time.
Their father, Dave Winfrey, said he and his wife, Maureen, are proud of their daughters’ for keeping the tradition going, and they are a little amazed, too. He thought perhaps when the girls reached high school their hot chocolate stand days might be over.
“We didn’t think it would last this long,” he said. “They want to do something to pay it forward. It’s kind of become a community event. Folks look forward to it.”
The stand is set up each year in the garage of the family’s home on Hillview Road in Homewood. This year, the event was held on Dec. 8, and two Marines, Sgt. Johnathan Hooker and Cpl. Sean Streicher, were on hand to support the effort.
“It’s a really good program. It’s about giving to families in need, families who are having hardships and can’t really afford to buy their children Christmas presents,” Hooker said.
Helping kids have a good Christmas has been the mission for the Winfrey sisters since they were kids. The first year, they raised $50. This year, they were able to buy $8,700-worth of toys.
In years past, they would shop for the toys, collect them at a downtown Flossmoor business for delivery to the Marines.
This year, they had a Marine Corps representative go with them and transport the toys to the program collection point.
“We don’t have enough cars any more,” Kayla said. Last year, the sisters set a record with $11,000 in donations.
Beyond helping needy children, another thing that has kept the tradition going year after year is the community’s support.
“Being able to have our community so involved is really what helped us,” Mara said. “We have people making cookies and (bringing) marshmallows, just making it a point to come out every year. That’s just been really special.”
Megan Brackin is one of the regulars. She was there with her daughters, Sylvia and Aly, and said they have attended for about five years. She works with Maureen Winfrey, Mara and Kayla’s mother.
She said the event is one she and her daughters look forward to.
“We get delicious hot chocolate. We’re contributing to a wonderful cause. And we’re getting to see friends and catch up with coworkers,” she said.
The event has provided the Winfrey sisters with many good memories of family and community togetherness and generosity. The giving comes in various forms. One example stuck out in their memories.
“Last year, we had someone message us on FB, someone we had never met before,” Mara said. “They came the night of and dropped off a van full of toys, a crazy amount of toys.”
Kayla noted that at the other end of the spectrum were the smaller but just as meaningful contributions.
“We’ve had kids come with their piggy banks and dump a bunch of coins in our donation box,” she said, “generous children that save up all their money through the year to donate toward this cause.”
In all, the sisters had rasied $35,000 for Toys for Tots before this year’s colleciton.
“It’s blown our minds,” Mara said.
“It’s just a great tradition, not only for our family but our community,” Kayla said.