You could say a janitor is the eyes and ears of a school. But, what one janitor saw, broke his heart. He couldn't sit back without doing something about it.
Tom Felkner has kept Villa Grove Grade School clean for more than a decade.
"Best job I've ever had," he said. "The people, the kids, the staff."
But in the past several years, he noticed a change.
"Kids walking to school without coats on. Kids got their shoes duct-taped together. Pretty sad."
Tom couldn't ignore what was happening.
"Times are hard," he said. "A lot of people are out of work."
But he wasn't. So he started buying what kids needed. Teachers would call him at home with requests.
"I'm on a hotline, but that's what it's about."
The need, though, was too great to take care of alone. Tom and his wife, Karen, went to their church and floated the idea of running a clothing ministry. The parish was on board.
They thought they would just help kids from kindergarten to fourth grade but this has grown so large, they can clothe babies through adults. They have an entire room that's just dedicated to coats. Karen Felkner can't believe how they've expanded.
"We decided if the parents were having trouble clothing the children, they were probably having trouble clothing themselves," said Karen.
People like Tiki McIlhenny. She has a 5-year old, a mortgage and a husband who's a painter with few painting jobs to go around. The ministry fills the gap.
McIlhenny said, "It's so heartwarming to know that other people care because you don't get too many people who care anymore."
Tom and Karen and the rest of the volunteers care a lot. They're here twice a week. One day to stock, one day to open the doors so people can grab a basket and fill it for free. No questions asked.
Tom remembered, "I got one little boy who needed a coat. He put it on. He wouldn't take it off. Everyday, that's been a year, he'll walk up to me and look up and say 'Thank you for my new coat.' It just breaks my heart."
And then there was the girl who needed a blanket.
"We had a princess pink bedspread. So I said, 'Honey, will this work?' and she said, 'You know what? I'm going to be warm this winter.' Not that the fact that it was pink. Her big thing was she was going to be warm."
Karen said, "That's what makes it worthwhile. You get those stories and it keeps you going."
Going until there are no more calls about kids who are cold or need some shoes.
But until that day, "We're open 24/7 for our mission and that's exactly the way it is."
If you would like to make a monetary donation, send it to:
Tom Felkner c/o Living Hope Fellowship 312 N. First St. Villa Grove, IL 61956
If you would like to donate clothes or use the clothing ministry, you can call Tom at 217-832-8142
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