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Annual train ride raises awareness for a cause

Court Appointed Special Advocates of Will County’s annual Christmas Express continues to chug along into its eighth year.

Festivities of the two-day affair—which took place Dec. 3 and Dec. 4—was aimed at raising funds to support the Joliet-based nonprofit organization and its mission to help abused and neglected children in Will County find safe homes.

At Joliet Union Station, CASA transformed the grand ballroom into a play place for children to have their faces painted, to have the opportunity to write letters to Santa, and to cozy up to a serving of hot cocoa and cookies.

A train later departed from Joliet and arrived at Oak Park Avenue train station in Tinley Park.

Passengers were then greeted with another batch of activities, including taking pictures with Santa, riding a sleigh ride and making crafts. CASA also hosted a breakfast or lunch for all children and families at Durbin’s.

CASA event manager Gunggoll said it’s nice to see the show of support for the organization.

“I think that most people have the perception because [of] it’s the name—Court Appointed Special Advocates—that they think it’s funded by the city or the state or the government and somehow funding it,” she said. “But, that’s not the case. It comes almost 100 percent from fundraisers like this and from private donations and corporate sponsorships and grants—that kind of thing. They get very little bit from the county, but everything else comes from things like this.”

Kristen Nelson, of Naperville, was one of many taking part in the activities. She said this year was her first time attending Christmas Express.

“I have friends that have done it for, I think, two or three years and told me how great it was,” she said. “So, we wanted to come try it out this year.”

Nelson and her children got into the holiday season spirit taking part in the Christmas Express had to offer, and she hoped that just by bringing her family together, they could create another memory.

“It’s fun to see your kids get so excited about things like this,” she said. “[It’s] something you can enjoy as a family.”

Kristen’s six-year-old daughter, Caroline Nelson noted that meeting Santa Claus at the Harald Viking Lodge was her favorite part and “getting that,” she said, pointing to a stuff owl she received from him.

Attendee Nick Offerman, of Yorkville, shared Kristen’s sentiments and enjoyed how there were many “kid-friendly things” at the event.

“The train ride was excellent,” he said.

Offerman added that the holiday season is a big deal in his family, and his children were surprised when they had the chance to meet Santa.

Romeoville couple Dave and Sherry Crocker, along with their children, headed for the crafts table at the lodge.

“The parade was cute and lunch with Santa was really nice,” she said, noting this is also their first time taking part in the event.

“It was their very first time on a train,” she said of her children. “So, they liked it.”

On average, Christmas Express has raised between $40,000 and $45,000, from year to year, and Gunggoll said she is pleased to see how the event continues to grow.

Proceeds from the event will be used to train area volunteers and help promote CASA’s mission to surrounding communities.

“We pretty much sell out every year, and we’re at capacity and that’s great,” she said.

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