The generosity of the Keefe family is well known, however the origin of what has evolved into a company holiday tradition remains untold. The story began one cold November day over 25 years ago, in downtown Lake Geneva.
Lael Vandenburgh, a broker who has worked at Keefe for almost 30 years, fondly recalls how a personal experience opened her eyes to the needs of Walworth County foster children one Christmas, and how that knowledge evolved into one of the company’s most cherished annual giving opportunities.
“About 25 years ago, when I was the managing broker at Keefe and my daughter, Charlotte, was in junior high school, she had a friend who went into foster care. He seemed to be having a positive experience, and yet I wondered what would happen at Christmas. Would he receive gifts from his foster family? I really had no idea how the system worked, but he was a nice boy and so I contacted the head of Walworth County Foster Care.” As it turned out, the children in the foster care program did not receive Christmas gifts, back then. While some foster families had the means to be generous with their kids, others had more challenging financial situations. “It broke my heart,” says Lael. That’s when she decided to ask the Keefe agents if they would like to play Santa and make the holidays special for foster kids in the community. The generosity of Keefe staff and agents was overwhelming that first year, and that abundant kindness has lasted for over two decades.
One year, Lael was invited to participate in the distribution of the gaily wrapped Christmas presents to the foster children. “It was such a touching experience…actually being there and seeing how important this was to not only the children but to the foster families as well.” Working with the foster care program opened her eyes to how important it is for the older children and young teens to receive gifts as well. While it’s always fun and exciting to donate a “first” bicycle or baby doll, gifts for kids ages 12-18 are incredibly important. Initially, foster families were asked by the program to submit ideas of 1 or 2 items their foster children needed; throughout the years that request has grown to include both “needs” and “wishes”.
Each year, Keefe Real Estate agents and staff anxiously await the line-up of the red construction paper stockings which are “hung” in the company’s lobby in Lake Geneva. Each numbered stocking provides a short Christmas list. It’s unusual for a stocking to lay unclaimed by a secret Santa for more than a day or two. By mid-December, the Keefe Christmas tree is surrounded by beautifully wrapped packages, and oversized gift bags begin to magically appear until the lobby soon resembles Santa’s workshop. Every December another agent slips through the lobby doors arms laden with stuffed animals – one for every foster child – and tucks them into the bags and boxes. One year the animals were Dr. Seuss characters and the comical faces popping out around the tree made it an unusually colorful scene. Each year the scene changes slightly, from bicycles and baby doll strollers to Lego sets and snow boots; however the sentiment never changes: let’s make the world a better place by making our community a better place for everyone – especially the children. So while Santa and his elves work feverishly in the North Pole, the Keefe elves work hard to make the Christmas season shine a little brighter here in Walworth County.
By: Janis L. Hartley