Kathy McAfee joined the Nunda Rural Fire Department in the 1970s because the department needed volunteers.
“I started because I needed to do something to help in the community,” said McAfee, 57.
Not only was she one of the department’s first female firefighters, but she also was the state’s first certified female firefighter.
Today, she maintains her certification as an emergency medical technician and has served as a fire district trustee for the past two years.
However, what she is widely known for these days is creating and running the department’s annual Pancake Breakfast with Santa and the Holiday Food and Gift Delivery, which benefit local children and families.
It all began a little more than 30 years ago with a gift basket, McAfee said.
McHenry Hospital, as it then was called, would give baskets of ham, cheese and fruit to area fire departments at Christmastime.
Since no one was ever at the station unless there was a call, McAfee said, the firefighters decided to donate the goodies to three elderly people in the district. The baskets were delivered on Christmas Eve.
“We did that for three years,” McAfee said. “The second year, two had milk and cookies out when we got there.”
From their emergency calls, the firefighters became aware of the area’s needy families.
“We walked into a number of homes that did not even have Christmas trees,” McAfee said.
McAfee worked with Prairie Grove School District 46 to get the names of families who would be willing to receive gift baskets.
“We got a few families the first year, and it grew,” she said.
The program grew not only in the number of families helped, but also in the number of people putting it together, McAfee said.
Each year, the student council at Prairie Grove School organizes a food drive. Students and parents help sort the food and wrap gifts. Teachers donate the money for hams or turkeys.
“Prairie Grove School has been key in running a food drive all these years,” McAfee said.
The Pancake Breakfast with Santa, which takes place the second Sunday in December, started close to 25 years ago as a way to raise money to buy gifts for the children and gift cards for their parents.
At first, the breakfast took place at the firehouse but since has moved to Prairie Grove School.
The growth allowed even more area young people to be involved, including Boy Scout troops and the fire department’s Explorers, who are 14- to 21-year-olds interested in pursuing firefighting careers.
“It is so incredible,” McAfee said of the coordinated efforts that include businesses such as Rose Packing Co. in South Barrington, which provides the sausage for the breakfast at cost.
For the past couple of years, a Christmas tree with the names and ages of children has been set up at the firehouse so firefighters can take tags and buy gifts, McAfee said.
Once all the food has been assembled and the gifts and gift cards have been purchased, McAfee arranges for visits to be made to the 12 to 22 families the week before Christmas.
Each family receives a ham or turkey, three boxes of food, personal care items, gift cards and gifts for the children.
A group of 10 firefighters and Santa make the deliveries by ambulance and sing “Jingle Bells” at each stop, McAfee said.
“It’s a very heartwarming thing,” she said. “The kids are so incredibly surprised. Every year, there’s always a story to tell.”
Although the firefighters don’t know what the children would like for Christmas, oftentimes the children say their gifts are exactly what they wanted, McAfee said.
“It just happens,” she said. “That’s what’s so amazing … seeing these little miracles happening.”
McAfee, who begins work in July for the December events, always is looking for volunteers. To help, call the fire department at 815-455-1559.