New Richmond residents have been packing up love during the holidays for more than 20 years.

The Love Baskets program continues to grow and serve the communities of New Richmond and Somerset.

The early years

Love Baskets was started by women from the New Richmond and Star Prairie churches in the early 1980s.

"We wanted to help the people of New Richmond," said Bev Nutzmann, a long-time member of the group. She retired from the group last year.

No person or church was the constant leader in the early years. Instead, duties rotated between the four large churches (Immaculate Conception, St. Luke's, United Methodist and First Lutheran) with other churches and individuals pitching in.

The group and its reach started small, Nutzmann said. In the first years only about 30 families were helped. Low income families living in the New Richmond School District or attending a New Richmond or Star Prairie church were eligible. Those in need, or those wishing to nominate another, contacted the churches.

The baskets (which were actually painted cardboard banana boxes) included food, household supplies and treats.

Along with food and household supplies, gifts would sometimes be included. Church women sewed pajamas and nightgowns, which was new in 1985, according to News archives. Toys, if they were included, were small, like matchbox cars.

"We didn't have a very big budget," Nutzmann said. "Whatever came in we'd give out."

Collections were taken up at all the churches before the holidays to benefit Love Baskets. People just automatically knew what and where to donate, Nutzmann said.

When a giving tree was started at the Bank of New Richmond, things picked up, she said. Those wishing to donate picked a number off the tree, then bought the things that family asked for.

By 1986, Love Baskets had grown substantially. According to newspaper accounts, 67 baskets were packed by 40 workers at the American Legion Hall for distribution that year.

Beth Lybeck, a current member, started with the group in about 1994. At that time and every year prior, volunteers assembled the baskets to be picked up on designated dates by the recipients. The American Legion and Armory were some past pick-up spots.

Today's Love Baskets

With the program's continued growth came the need for extra help.

Last year, the Love Baskets program reorganized, combining efforts with a similar program run by the Salvation Army in Somerset.

"Now that it has gotten so large, we need the organization that we have," said current volunteer Kay Brooks. "The Salvation Army has provided know-how and resources that have greatly helped us and we (church and community members) have been able to provide volunteers. It's a great partnership."

Rather than having a few pick-up days at a public location as in past years, the group now has a party at Somerset Middle School for all the recipients. Kids and parents can chat with Santa and Mrs. Claus, make crafts, get free haircuts and pick from a mitten tree. Children can also select and wrap gifts for their parents.

This year's party is on Sunday, Dec. 20, at Somerset Middle School.

In 2008, more than 200 volunteers helped and about 370 baskets were given out. They're expecting to give even more baskets this year, Brooks said.

Volunteer support has been substantial in the past years, Brooks said. Although she wasn't with Love Baskets from the start, her parents helped with the Empty Stocking Club in Madison so she was familiar with the idea, she said.

"Love Baskets is an event that truly brings the community together," she said. "Not only do the families benefit, but the volunteers gain the joy that comes from the giving of themselves."

Having the party instead of a pick-up spot has been the best change so far, Lybeck said.

"Watching all the children participate in the crafts, games and pictures with Santa and Mrs. Claus is really a wonderful sight to see," she said.

"Sometimes it does get overwhelming, especially these last few years because the need is up," Lybeck said. "But it makes me feel good that I can help these families out in some way during Christmas time."

Love Baskets 2009

To get help: Families eligible for Love Baskets live in the New Richmond or Somerset school districts. They are referred by schools, churches, human services department, The Salvation Army in St. Croix County or have received Love Baskets in the past.

Families can contact Love Baskets at 246-6441.

To donate or sponsor: Toys are collected at churches, banks and Wal-Mart. Besides toys, children may receive items such as socks, underwear, hoodies, hats, mittens and blankets. Older children and infants typically receive the fewest donations.

Gifts vary in cost and by age and gender, all depending on what people wish to place in the collection boxes, but the focus is on children, Brooks said.

Families also get a gift certificate to Family Fresh for food.

Individuals or groups can also sponsor a family, in which case the sponsor is given information about the age, gender and interests of children in the family.

Sponsors can contact Love Baskets at 246-6441. Monetary donations can be sent to: Love Baskets, P.O. Box 222, New Richmond, WI 54017.

To volunteer: Those interested in volunteering can contact Lori or Tammy at 247-2944. The greatest need for help is for set-up and clean-up of the Christmas party, where the recipients receive their gifts, Brooks said.