CARTHAGE, Ill. -- "All I wanted was for my kids to have a merry Christmas," said Mary Ellen Carlson, loading 16 boxes of gifts and other household items. "This may be their best Christmas ever."
Ms. Carlson lives in Dallas City, Ill., with her four children, ages 16, 14, 10 and 3. They were flooded out of their Pontoosuc, Ill., home when the Mississippi River spilled over its banks over the summer.
"We lost most of our clothes, furniture and appliances, like most people," Ms. Carlson said. "We set things up on blocks and thought it would be safe."
What the water didn't get, mold quickly destroyed before the flood waters subsided enough to clean up.
Ms. Carlson was one of the 26 families in Hancock County, Ill., adopted by families in Carroll County. She had filled out a questionnaire, explaining the family's needs and Christmas wishes. A truck filled with gifts arrived Monday at the Hancock County Cooperative Extension Center.
One of Ms. Carlson's wishes was to have a Christmas tree, and among her boxes was an artificial tree and decorations.
"We're going to put up the tree tonight," she said Monday.
Ms. Carlson thought her ornaments were safe at home in a round fruit can. But when she picked up the the can, she heard the shifting, broken glass.
"That was one thing that hit me the hardest lately," she said. "Not having those decorations, the ones the kids made in preschool. We have been using them for years.
"There's a lot of tradition in Christmas. There just aren't words to describe how this makes us feel. Thank you is just not enough."
The truck full of boxes and gifts filled the back half of the Cooperative Extension Center auditorium. The truck was unloaded by a Jobs Training Partnership Administration crew, hired after they had lost their jobs due to the flood.
The gifts included clothing, toys, bicycles, a toilet and bathroom sink, a water heater, cleaning supplies and potted trees and shrubs to be planted next spring. Some were directed for a particular family, while other boxes of gifts and supplies will be given to anyone needing help.
Larry "Butch" Granneman of Niota, Ill., was surprised when he came with Hancock County Engineer Paul Sly.
Mr. Granneman, a road commissioner from Appanoose Township, was flooded out of his home. A group of road workers from Carroll County collected money for flood relief and asked that it be given to a township worker in Hancock County.
Mr. Granneman and his wife are working to repair their Niota home while living in a Federal Emergency Management Administration trailer. Land for the trailer was donated so he could continue to live in the township as road commissioner.
"Mennonites from Canada came down and helped put drywall into the house," Mr. Granneman said. "We'd hoped to move in by Christmas. This is just wonderful. We can sure use it," he said.
Visiting Carroll County officials, including Commissioner Donald I. Dell, R. Patrick Hill, a county employee who chaired the county's flood relief efforts, and Bonni Crispin of Hampstead, who started collection donations in Hampstead, left the county seat of Carthage after the truck was unloaded to meet two families in the Warsaw bottoms.
In Warsaw bottoms, 15,000 acres of farmland were covered with water up to 20 feet deep over the summer.
Tuesday, they met families in Niota, Pontoosuc and Dallas City before returning home. Farmers also anticipate six train car loads of hay and straw being sent by Carroll County farmers.
The job of distributing the gifts falls on Susan Sewell, a Cooperative Extension Services community worker who helped match families to be adopted.
"We hope to have all this delivered by this weekend," Ms. Sewell said.
People who can be contacted at their temporary homes will be asked to pick up their gifts. The rest will be distributed by Ms. Sewell and extension council volunteers.
The adopt-a-family project was started to help coordinate the Maryland relief. Another 14 families are being adopted by families and service groups from Hancock County and around Illinois, Ms. Sewell said.
The project, started by a former 4-H member, had added to the Christmas spirit in the donors' families, too. Mike Hoff donated his time to drive the truck 18 hours from Maryland to Hancock County. He was hoping to meet the family his family had adopted.
"When the water went down, I think the people thought it was all over," he said. "The purpose of this load is to let people know that we haven't forgotten, especially at Christmas. It won't be the same, but we hope to make it merry."