O'FALLON, Mo. • Like at most corporations, employees at Citi report to work by passing security, nodding a good morning and heading to their respective offices.
But this time of year, employees of the financial company who might otherwise give their co-workers no more than a passing glance are getting together for an important cause.
Workers in the loss mitigation department can be found sitting next to those in special loans; the IT department is mingling with those in accounting.
The coming together happens at folding tables set up just inside the entrance to the cafeteria, where many of the 4,000 workers come each day. There, a kind of carnival scene has been set up, with silent auctions, basket raffles, and "Minute to Win It" games, all to raise money for the poor, the unemployed or the sick.
And the largest recipient of their efforts is 100 Neediest Cases, a giving tradition for 88 years. The charitable holiday campaign, which is launching today, raises more than $1 million annually for the St. Louis region's most vulnerable residents.
Citi has adopted 1,361 families from the 100 Neediest Cases since 2000, making the company one of the largest participants in the program.
But most of those who reach out to those needing assistance do so in smaller ways. It's a campaign that inspires single individuals to give. They then join neighbors, friends and family to aid strangers who need a hand. And often in creative ways.
Take bus driver John Barnett.
For the past seven years, Barnett has looked through the 100 Neediest Cases printed in the Post-Dispatch, cut one out and taped it to the side of an empty milk jug, which he places on the floor of his bus, up front, near the door. His efforts have raised $3,000.
Most of the donations come from the students on his route in the Rockwood School District, although other drivers with First Student bus company also contribute.
"I make sure at the beginning that they know nobody has to give anything," Barnett said. "Of the 140 kids I've got, at least 100 put in something."
Vanessa Wayne, director of the 100 Neediest Cases, coordinated by the United Way of Greater St. Louis, said corporate donations are a wonderful, integral part of giving. About 10 percent of the cases are adopted by companies.
But the crux of the campaign, she said, are the small gifts.
She points to the thank-you cards and letters she receives each year from adopted families.
"People aren't just saying thank you. They want me to know how the money was used to pay a bill, get a prescription filled, buy a new coat or get extra food that the budget does not usually allow," Wayne said. "It reminds me that you can never know how much a little can mean to someone else."
While 100 cases are featured in the Post-Dispatch, including the first three Sunday, nearly 7,000 other cases await adoption, and an additional 6,000 that will receive cash collected through the campaign. Last year, $1.4 million was raised. The goal this year is down slightly, to $1.3 million.
At Citi, employees adopted 76 families this year. None are among the 100 that will be printed in the Post-Dispatch. Instead, they are all cases that the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis submitted to the United Way. The Urban League is one of about 80 agencies that works with the United Way to identify families who need help.
In addition to 100 Neediest Cases families, Citi adopts families through Sts. Joachim and Ann in St. Charles. Since 2000, the company has adopted 1,571 families from both programs and raised $660,382. The 100 Neediest Cases is the largest recipient of the company's Family Giving Program.
Cindy Orf, a senior administrative assistant at Citi and an organizer of the Family Giving Program, said that in the past few years, she is seeing more and more people ask for help.
"These are working people. Some of the people that used to give are asking for help themselves," Orf said. "It's a sign of the economy."
Dolly Mathew, who works in Citi's IT department, adopts two families each year, using the program as a lesson to show her two children how fortunate they are.
"I tell them: 'Your needs are attended to throughout the year. There is a whole community out there whose only chance to get something is this time of year," Mathew said. The stories of those in need are often heartbreaking, she said.
"In one case, it said: 'All I have is love to give my child. Anything you can give, I would appreciate it.' It brought tears to my eyes."
Barnett, the bus driver, said the 100 Neediest Cases have been a part of his life since he was a kid. His parents started giving to the program more than 50 years ago.
Barnett, a retired teacher, started giving on his own about 30 years ago but decided in 2003 to put a milk jug out to see if he could raise a bit more for the cause. He'd read a case about an 18-year-old girl still in high school, left to care for her siblings when their parents were killed in a car crash. He thought the story might resonate with his students. Every year since then, he tries to pick a family with teens.
His efforts have been well received by his employer. Marilyn Brock, a supervisor with First Student, said most of the students in the Rockwood School District don't experience the hardships reflected in the 100 Neediest Cases. Barnett doesn't hard-sell giving, just makes it accessible, she said.
"He's an amazing man with a lot of friends here," said Brock. "They're always asking: 'when's the jug coming out? It's getting cold.'"
Come the Monday after Thanksgiving, the jug will be sitting on the floor of Barnett's bus for an eighth time.