BLOOMINGTON — To Jaime Russell, among nearly 50 volunteers who unloaded a Connect Transit bus outside Children's Home & Aid on Monday, the bus wasn't just stuffed with diapers, baby wipes, infant formula, stuffed animals and clothes.
It was filled with hope.
"I was just thinking of all the families who struggle day to day to have even one hundredth of what we have on this bus," Russell said as she handed children's items to other volunteers. "I think of the numbers of people this will impact in the community."
The volunteers formed an assembly line that ended in Children's Home & Aid's Crisis Nursery, 403 S. State St., where donations will be used by children through age 6 who are admitted to the Crisis Nursery during the next year. The Crisis Nursery provides a safe, temporary environment for children who are at risk for abuse or neglect because of domestic violence, homelessness, mental illness or other crises.
The supplies were donated last week by shoppers as the 40-foot-long bus was parked outside Walmarts in Normal and Bloomington and Kroger in Normal. The event was the 16th annual Stuff the Bus, a partnership of Children's Home & Aid, Connect Transit, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 752, Paul Davis Restoration, Great Plains Media and Deer's Mill Farm.
"I enjoy kids and they deserve things that, sometimes, their parents can't give them," said Connect Transit driver and ATU Local 752 member Christy Gordon, who has volunteered at Stuff the Bus every year.
While the numbers of items donated won't be known until counting is complete in several days, volunteers who unloaded and sorted the donations agreed that donations were at least equal to last year. Last year, 4,778 items were donated, a decrease from the 6,362 items donated in 2016.
"I'd say it's at least what we did last year," said Connect Transit Marketing Manager Jeff Holtke. "Considering we started the week with snow and ended it with tornadoes, it turned out to be a pretty good week."
Jeannie Higdon, Children's Home & Aid family support clinical supervisor, reported that cash, checks, sponsorships and gift cards totaled $6,026.21, compared with $4,469 last year.
"I continue to be humbled by the level of support the community is showing for our programs and our families," Higdon said.
"This is one of my favorite days of the year, seeing all the stuff, getting a little workout in the morning and getting the community together," Russell said as she and fellow volunteers Holtke and Brendan O'Neill of Connect Transit and Silvia Aguilar of Children's Home & Aid squatted, lifted and carried merchandise as they "unstuffed" the bus.
Leah Ristow, Stephanie Neumann and Jaime Caraballo, all with Children's Home & Aid, sang "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" at one point as they worked.
But everyone knew the effort had a serious purpose.
During the fiscal year that ended June 30, the Crisis Nursery had 2,287 admissions for 225 children while providing 111 post-crisis home visits and 143 parent support group meetings, said Tiffanny Powell, the agency's family support services program manager.
"So many people in this community want to help," Powell said.