Christmas, of course, comes in December. Christmas in July is a handy marketing ploy.
But for Felecia Rasmussen, Christmas is an ever present concern. More specifically, Christmas 4 Kids, the charity program she’s run almost nonstop since 2005.
“It was pretty small going when we first started,” said Rasmussen. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. … But it continued to grow and grow.”
Rasmussen had been in La Salle County since 1999. She got her job as a sheriff’s deputy in 2001, a continuation of the law enforcement career started in California in 1995. Born in Napa, she grew up in Sacramento with her mother and two sisters. She worked as a deputy in that capital city, and found rural North Central Illinois something of a culture shock — one she’s embraced.
“Honestly I can never see myself ever going back to California,” she said. “I love this area and being here and working and being a part of the community and meeting people.”
Many of the people she meets are children, especially as the resource officer for 14 schools. Concern for some motivated her to start the charity effort that now commands much of her free time.
“I was going to calls and seeing the kids in our rural parts and how they were living and it was very frustrating,” she said. “I wanted to do something about it to try and help these kids get clothes because that’s what they were lacking. So I talked with some of my guys at work and we decided to start the program.”
Through Christmas 4 Kids, sheriff’s office employee union members take children shopping at the Ottawa Walmart each December. Fundraising throughout the year yields a budget of $200 per child for necessities like clothing, and perhaps a toy or game.
“We came up with a name and off we went,” Rasmussen recalled. “We were only able to help 12 kids the first year because that was all the money we had raised.”
Last Christmas it was 71 children — which meant fundraisers and donations brought in more than $14,000. Walmart discounts each item, and it’s not uncommon for fellow shoppers to see what’s happening and make cash donations on the spot. Last year’s major fundraiser included a four-hour Radium City Rebels set, a 50-50 drawing, T-shirts and other items for sale as well as a raffle, with a top prize of a hot tub donated by Anderson Pools.
“We have a lot of kids in our county that I don’t think people realize are in rough spots,” said Rasmussen, who has three children of her own and three grandchildren. “I have seen kids wearing other people’s shoes that don’t fit, but it’s all they have. Socks with no toes, but again, that’s what they have. I don’t believe people realize unless they see it what some of these kids are going through.”
She also gets to directly witness the result of an outpouring of generosity.
“I love this program and seeing how we can put smiles on the faces when they get new shoes or socks or even a new pair of pants. That is what’s worth it to us. Fundraising is hard and not everyone wants to give, but we keep trying and we continue to keep going,” she said.
“I remember a kid who had never had a bicycle before, and after we got his clothes we went back to the bicycle area because that was what he really wanted. He was so happy he rode that bike around Walmart and wouldn’t get off the bike. He rode it all the way through Walmart and to the checkout and out the car.”
Two years in, Rasmussen sat out 2007 while fighting cancer. She resumed involvement as soon as health allowed and remains the program’s guiding light. She said the cancer scare — and losing her mother to the disease — motivated her to make a difference in the lives of children.
“I’m very proud of what me and my fellow deputies have accomplished with this program,” she said. “I have a great group of guys at work and friends that help me out. Without them I don’t know what I would do. But this program is my baby.”
Christmas, as Dr. Seuss’ Grinch learned, doesn’t come from a store. But a store is exactly where the children Rasmussen helps encounter that giving spirit, through the generosity of hundreds. In that way, it’s always the Christmas season — 4 the kids.