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BLOOMINGTON - Her eyes closed slightly because of the pain, Julie Stiles sat quietly Saturday at a table in the Bloomington High School cafeteria.

She just had carpal tunnel surgery Friday and her arm was wrapped with white gauze, but she smiled as her children played various games and made crafts at the Christmas for Kids party Saturday.

The Stiles children were among more than 330 children who signed up in advance to take part in the party thrown annually by the Bloomington and Normal Trades and Labor Assembly AFL-CIO.

The first one was held in 1982 when unemployment was high in the community and families needed a little extra Christmas cheer, organizers said. Over the years, children and families have enjoyed the carnival atmosphere, with games, crafts, cartoons and a visit from Santa Claus.

For anyone who needs it

The annual party is open to any one who needs it, said Mike Matejka, a union official and city alderman who helped create the party tradition more than 20 years ago. It was designed for those who are unemployed or underemployed.

"We've seen kids that came before, bringing their own kids now," said union official John Penn.

In the party room, families munched on cookies, played tossing games, skipped rope and had their faces painted.

Each child received a gift bag that included chocolates, coloring books and a pass to Miller Park Zoo. Each child also chose a gift, such as a plush toy or backpack, to take home.

Stiles, a truck driver who loads and unloads her trucks, never had been to the party before. This year she is recovering from the second surgery in a couple of months, first on one arm and then on the other. Her husband just had foot surgery, is disabled and couldn't attend the party.

"It has been hard - believe me," their 10-year-old daughter Angela said of her family's challenges this year.

She has been helping with family chores during the latest round of surgeries. She scrubs the dishes.

"I can deal with that," she said.

Her brother Kurt, 8, had his hands full of crafts, including a paper candy cane he had made at the event and little presents he won at the games.

Illinois State University athletes were among the volunteers helping children with the games. "At the study center, they asked who would like to help with the kids today. Who doesn't love kids?" said James Temple, 21, a football player.

Yvonne Northover, an ISU soccer player from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was all smiles as she helped chant skipping songs for the children.

A rope broke off one of the games before the doors opened. "It's a skipping rope," she said declared, and that turned out to be one of the most popular activities in the game room.

"They're just loving it so am I," Northover said.

Matejka said the event is possible because several businesses and individuals helped donate the toys, and gifts.

The Eagle radio station, which has had its own children's holiday party for three years, joined with the union to have one party this year.

The McLean County Chamber of Commerce and other businesses also contribute to the party.

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