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Stocking fund has big impact
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MONROE - For Brenda Ritschard, it was a Christmas she'll never forget.

Two years ago, Ritschard and her husband Dan were fostering a family of four siblings. The children, who ranged in age from 19 months to 10 years, stayed with them for nine months. With four children of their own, including a 15-year-old and an 8-year-old still at home, Ritschard said they wanted to became foster parents as a way to share their blessings.

"I felt I was very lucky to have such a great family, a wonderful husband, a great life," Ritschard recalled. Realizing many children don't have as much, the family wanted to give to others.

Providing a foster home for the children was an eye-opening experience for Ritschard as she found support all around.

"This community was just incredible. People came out of woodwork to help these kids - schools, daycares, people we didn't know," Ritschard said.

That list of supporters included the Christmas Stocking Fund. The Monroe Woman's Club sponsors the Christmas Stocking each year, and collects money and other donations to help families in need. The club distributes winter outwear, including coats and boats, clothes, shoes and toys for children in the Monroe school district. Families also receive a food box containing the fixings for a holiday meal and more. The program also includes delivering Cheer Boxes containing holiday cookies and fruit to the elderly.

The program is far-reaching, benefiting hundreds of families each year. Last year, 300 families received help from the Christmas Stocking, up from 270 families the year before. Christmas Stocking fundraising coordinator and treasurer Kathy Reffue estimated the program will be serving about 20 more families this year - the Woman's Club never knows exactly how many families will need assistance from year to year, but it typically increases by 20 to 30 families annually.

The Woman's Club organizes a multitude of volunteers to pull off the effort. Volunteers bake cookies, shop for families, and pack and deliver food boxes. Local businesses pitch in by hosting toy drives, collecting money and donating goods and services to ensure boxes and gifts get delivered in time for the holidays.

Ritschard said she's not sure how the Christmas Stocking got her family's name. Names of families in need are offered confidentially by area churches, school officials and counselors. Parents then are contacted to see if they would like help providing warm clothing and Christmas gifts for their children.

But she does know the tremendous impact those gifts had on her foster children - and her birth children.

"It was the most wonderful Christmas we ever had," Ritschard said.

"I don't think they ever had Christmas where they got a lot of presents," she said of her foster children. They were amazed and truly appreciative of each present they opened.

Their elation at their Christmas gifts had a profound effect on Ritschard's own children, as well. As the gift-opening progressed, "my kids didn't even care about their presents - they just sat back and watched" their foster siblings delight in their gifts.

"It gave Christmas a whole different meaning," she said.

Ritschard sympathizes with parents hit hard by the recession - so many want to be able to give their children a nice Christmas but simply cannot afford to do so. "Times are hard," she said, but the Christmas Stocking allows parents the opportunity to do so, without feel bad or embarrassed about receiving help.

"The kids that don't get a lot are the ones who do really appreciate it," Ritschard said.

As is typical, the Woman's Club saw a rush of donations at the beginning of this year's fund drive. Those donations are starting to slow, while the need increases.

All donations, regardless of their size, are needed to help cover expenses. "Any small donation is appreciated. Many, many small donations add up - we're just grateful and thrilled for anything we can get," Reffue said.

Reffue echoed Ritschard's assessment that the Christmas Stocking shows how generous area residents really are - whether it's donating money, time, or a combination of both - and how much support there is to share the Christmas spirit.

"It's just unbelievable," Reffue said.

Ritschard herself is one of those helping out. After seeing first-hand the impact the Christmas Stocking has on children and families, Ritschard is volunteering as a shopper. It's her way of giving back and helping spread the spirit of giving.

"They did so much for our family. It's a great organization," she said.

To donate to the Christmas Stocking Fund, send contributions to 901 16th Ave., Monroe, WI 53566. A pre-addressed envelope is included inside today's edition of the Times. Donations are accepted year-round.