DYER | It may not be the North Pole, but Santa’s elves have nothing on the group of volunteers who gathered recently inside an auto shop to box and wrap 375 presents for needy families in Northwest Indiana.

The gathering is an annual holiday tradition that goes back 20 years when Rachael Martinez of Dyer decided for her birthday that she’d rather have people provide gifts that could be donated to those in need. Her brother and sister-in-law, Jose and Kelly Martinez, provide use of their Dyer auto repair shop, ASC II, as a location for family, friends and coworkers to assemble the gifts. Kelly said the effort has grown each year, and customers and community members donate much of what is given away. “It’s really snowballed. It’s just a great thing,” she said.

The volunteers bring tape and wrapping paper to turn ordinary shoeboxes into festive containers, filling them with toys, activities, clothing and personal care items. Music and food complete the festive atmosphere. “Everybody feels like it’s the start to their holiday season,” Rachael Martinez said.

This year, the Martinez family partnered with the Franciscan Health Foundation to distribute gifts to patients at Franciscan Health’s McAuley Health Clinic in Hammond and St. Clare Health Clinic in Crown Point, which serve the uninsured and underinsured in Northwest Indiana, many of whom face economic hardships. Gifts are also being given to clients in the VASIA (Volunteer Advocates for Seniors and Incapacitated Adults) program, who lack suitable family or guardian involvement to help them make decisions. The VASIA program recruits, trains and supervises community volunteers to serve as temporary limited guardians for these individuals.

“The Foundation is truly grateful for the abundance of blessings these gifts will provide to our Franciscan families in need,” said Franciscan Health Foundation Director of Development Debbie Tatum. “We appreciate the collective effort that went into this project. Thank you for making a real difference in our community.”

Jose said he enjoys opening his business to the gift assembly and seeing generosity of the community. “This is a way for them to give back and it’s a beautiful thing.”