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Local residents make Christmas merrier for those who are struggling

Barb Marshall her children Robby (left) Mikey (center) shop for Christmas gifts for Ramos family Target Route 59 Naperville Thursday

Barb Marshall and her children Robby (left) and Mikey (center) shop for Christmas gifts for the Ramos family at Target on Route 59 in Naperville on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. | Mike Mantucca ~ For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 27, 2013 6:21AM

Christmas, we are all well reminded, is a time of peace and goodwill among humans. Some people take that message especially to heart, forfeiting a portion of the holiday they could spend relaxing and celebrating with their families, and instead using the time to help others who could use a hand. Here are a few local examples.

‘Warm feeling’

The Ramos family wasn’t having the best year when they met the Marshalls. It was Christmas time in 2009, and Francisco Ramos and a record 4.7 million other Americans had lost their jobs that year.

Ramos, his wife, Josefina, and their three kids were “going through some difficult times,” Bob Marshall said. Then working as Naperville’s assistant city manager, Marshall heard about the family through the Loaves & Fishes Community Pantry, where the Ramos’ had turned for help feeding their family.

The Marshalls figured the family could also use a hand with holiday cheer. So they did some shopping, then paid a call to the family’s apartment.

“Mr. Bob gave me a surprise, when he came here to my home,” Francisco said this week. “I said, ‘Oh my God, you bring us presents!’”

Thus was a tradition begun. On Monday, the Marshalls’ fourth annual gift-laden visit was to take place.

Francisco has been in and out of work several times since the Marshalls became part of the household’s holiday rituals. He’s working now, at Savers in Naperville. But with the arrival of a fourth baby in 2011, Josefina devotes her attention to caring for little Karina, 18 months, along with Fernando, 9; Maria, 6; and Rodrigo, 3, and isn’t able to work at a paid position too.

“They’re just having trouble making ends meet,” said Marshall, who in May went back to the Naperville Police Department, where he had spent 27 years earlier in his working life, this time settling into the chief’s office.

The three Marshall kids — 13-year-old Katie and twins Mikey and Robby, who are almost 11 — have taken on the role of choosing electronic gadgets to give the Ramos kids, and showing them how they’re used. The two families have gathered together with the Ramos Christmas tree as a backdrop, for a non-traditional family portrait.

Ramos lost his job again last year, when the Oswego warehouse where he was working had to close, and it wasn’t until about six months ago that he was able to begin bringing home a modest paycheck again. He’s especially grateful for the holiday help.

“I feel really, really happy when they help us, when I have no money to buy presents for my family,” Ramos said. “He is so nice.”

The chief said he and his wife, Barb, asked the kids last year what they thought about the yearly project.

“One of my boys, Mikey, said he had a warm feeling in his heart when we did it,” he said.

Coming to the table

Homeless families were still relatively few in the area when Jeff Reuland heard about the place called Hesed House.

The Aurora agency began its mission in February 1983. When Christmas came around that year, Reuland Food Service came to the table with the gift of festive nourishment, enough to feed the couple dozen or so who had hit hard times and took refuge in the new shelter.

The catering company has been bringing over dinner on Christmas Eve ever since.

“They’ve got plenty of catering gigs to juggle at that time of year, too,” said Ryan Dowd, executive director at Hesed House.

Reuland, who has run the family business for more than four decades, insists it’s not a big deal when he and his employees load up the truck with the special dinner and all the trimmings, and take it all over to the shelter to be dished up by local church volunteers — even though they know it will be the year’s holiday feast for a guest population that now numbers around 200 people each night. But then, a couple hundred more servings isn’t that big a deal on Christmas Eve for the catering business, which has been around since 1955.

“We sometimes have three, four hundred orders going out that day,” said Reuland, 64. That might translate to several thousand meals.

The donated fare is just one piece of a day that gets pretty hectic, no matter how it’s sliced. All 21 employees are required to work Christmas Eve, but everybody goes home by 3 p.m., and then they have the next two days off.

In the early years, Reuland said, he would send over whatever the kitchen had plenty of — maybe some roast beef or baked chicken — and his kids, Ryan and Brigit, would come along to help. Now, Ryan and Brigit help him run the business, and Ryan brings his own kids to the shelter with him. And with so many more mouths to feed these days, extra food has to be ordered and prepared.

“It’s sad,” Reuland said, “but it’s pretty amazing.”

When the catering truck pulls up at the shelter, Reuland said, a swarm of Hesed House guests always comes out to help unload. It gives him a warm feeling to know the meal means so much to so many.

“That’s the reason I do it,” he said. “Especially the last four, five years.”

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