Longtime Carmel icon spearheads philanthropic holiday effort
By Mary Allgier and Derek Fisher
One day in December of 1986, Kent Whitten sat in the Woodland Country Club dining room with some fellow members when they heard about a family in downtown Carmel in need of some Christmas cheer.
Soon after, the group of friends began raising money to provide that single mother and her eight children with a memorable holiday. Eventually, they provided food, presents and a Christmas tree to the destitute family.
The Woodland Christmas Club had been born.
“So the next year we thought, ‘Let’s try to start earlier and help more families,’” said Whitten, who is now president of both the country club and the yearly philanthropic project. “This year, we will be doing between 195 and 200 families with around 500 children. We try to make it a Christmas they won’t forget.”
These days, the Christmas Club works through Hamilton County’s Good Samaritans and Prevail to provide families in need with food and presents for the holidays. Overall, the project has about 250 sponsors for these families, who deliver food on Thanksgiving as well as food and presents on Christmas.
Each family takes a family, and the organization pays for everything through funds raised during the year.
“The direct contact is very important,” Whitten said. “I think one of the unique features is that everything is done on a volunteer basis. 100 percent of the funds go to families we assist. We have no money left over.”
Whitten took over the endeavor after the first year, and he has run it ever since.
“I just sort of became the person that organized the effort,” he said, “One of the advantages I had was that I didn’t have to work in December.”
The Christmas Club recognizes that some families can’t always provide for their children at Christmas.
“So there was a need for us to make Christmas for the children,” Whitten said. “Our organization really focuses on the children.”
Whitten, who knows a little bit about children after having sons and seven grandchildren of his own, moved to Carmel from Havana, Ill. in 1973 for his job with a costume jewelry manufacturer. He joined the Broad Ripple chapter of Sertoma, which raised money for organizations like Riley Children’s Hospital and the Noble Center and participated in Optimist International as a young man.
The entire history of the Christmas Club was set in motion when he joined Woodland in 1978 so his sons, members of the Carmel High School golf team, could practice the game. They are grown, and his grandchildren range from 3 to 25.
“Two of them live here in Carmel now,” Whitten said of his sons. “They get involved when they can.”
Whitten’s own personal involvement with the Christmas Club eventually was noticed by the Carmel Rotary Club. He garnered its Rotary Outstanding Service Award for his efforts, to the surprise of no one but himself.
“They invited me to attend a luncheon,” Whitten recalled. “I had never received anything of that nature before so I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I certainly I didn’t plan on winning the award. I was quite honored.”
Whitten also got to ride in the Carmelfest parade that year on the Rotary float.
“I’d never been on a float,” said Whitten. “I marched in parades when I was in school but never got to ride on a float before.
Whitten says family involvement is one of the things that makes the Woodland Christmas Club so special.
“It’s a project that the entire family can become involved in,” he said. “Children come and help their parents shop for the wish list items and the clothing; they help their parents deliver. Some of the older students come here and help with work in order to achieve their community service hours.”
Whitten wants the organization to continue to grow, but he says they would need more volunteers and money in order to do so. All of the families are currently sponsored this year, but Whitten said they could use help with deliveries if anyone wants to get involved this season.
“The volunteers for this organization are made up of members of Woodland Country Club,and also other people in the community. You do not need to be a member to volunteer,” Whitten said. “We welcome anyone.”
Whitten said news of the Christmas project mainly spreads by word of mouth.
“Some people just, you know, they talk to somebody and find out there’s a meeting,” he said. “Like this year, on November 8 – they just show up.”
People who want to volunteer can contact Whitten at the Woodland Country Club, and your name is put on an email list.
“We’re helping many other people in many, many ways,” Whitten said. “And that really defines what we do.”