CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) – Many teens will wake up to a pile of presents under their trees Sunday morning, but not every family can afford Christmas gifts. That’s where the Holiday Elf Gift Program comes in.

Colleen Dorsla started the volunteer group in 2020 because teenagers are often left out of other gift donation programs.

“I started it because Toys for Tots ends at age 12,” Dorsla said. “But really, I think that it’s very important for teenagers to know that they matter. And that beyond their living situation, beyond the struggles, that there’s somebody who took an information sheet about them and went shopping just for them, with them in mind.” 

The program “matches” teens in need with sponsors, or “elves,” who buy presents on their Christmas lists. She said watching their faces light up is the best feeling.

“I said, ‘this whole package is for you.’ The kid stepped back, lifted up the box, and said: ‘it’s all mine?’ And I said, ‘yes, everything in there is yours.’ He literally was holding the box and dancing this hopping dance in the middle of the terminal,” Dorsla said.

Each of the 298 teens who received gifts from the program this year grapples with unique, challenging circumstances – like the loss of a parent, or living in a hotel, for example. Dorsla said volunteers were also able to buy all the gifts on the Angel Tree for long-term residents at The Pavilion Behavioral Health facility.

“Because it’s just a program I created, there’s not a lot of rules. Some people want to sponsor a teen and never make any connection with the teen, [they] just want to get a list, go buy it, and they’re done,” Dorsla said. “Then we have other people that actually stay in contact. They’ve even emailed me this year saying, ‘I want to sponsor the same family.’”

Dorsla said the community is always very generous around the holidays. If you’re interested in becoming an elf next year, you can find more information on the program’s Facebook page.