For the past 10 years, Deacon Freddie Palacios and his wife, Zoila, have been putting smiles on the faces of poor children living in their native Guatemala by delivering wrapped toys for Christmas. It all started when the couple, parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo in Melrose Park, started visiting Guatemala for Christmas and saw how many poor children were living around their hometown of Estanzuela who didn’t receive any toys for the holiday. They thought back to their five kids and 16 grandkids in Chicago and how their home at Christmas looked like a toy store exploded. So when they returned the following year, they took toys with them, some given by their own children and others donated by parishioners at St. Charles Borremeo and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Melrose Park. “Last year we were able to bring about 2,000 toys,” said Deacon Freddie Palacios, who organizes the distribution through St. Cecelia Parish in Estanzuela, where he serves while in Guatemala. This year they are taking the same amount. They pay for the shipping themselves. Palacios owns his own electrifier company and since business slows down in the winter, he is able to take time off to go and work in Guatemala. “Guatemala is a beautiful country. There are people who have a decent life but there are also people who are the poorest and have nothing,” he said. “Those are the people we serve.” The couple typically leaves for Guatemala a month before Christmas and wraps the toys when they get there. The Palacios’ adult children take part in their parents’ work by shopping with their own children before the holidays to purchase toys to be sent to Guatemala. The couple’s daughter Michelle Tate and her children went with them last year. “I told my family, ‘Santa Claus is going to skip our house this Christmas. We’re going to go ahead see what Grandma and Grandpa do,’” Tate said. “My son had his little elf hat on when we gave out the toys.” She said the experience was hard to put into words. Her eyes filled with tears as she talked about the work her parents do in Guatemala. “This is not a millionaire guy trying to give away money,” she said pointing to her father. “This is a guy who works really hard, comes home with calluses on his hands and dirt on his shirt but he still gives. It’s an inspirational thing that my mom and my dad do.” Three years ago, the Palacios also started small trade schools for disadvantaged youth who are targeted by gangs. Through contacts with other deacons, they have also started trade schools in El Salvador and Argentina. The couple is in the process of establishing a non-profit here in Chicago to help raise money for their efforts in Latin America, especially the trade schools. Up until now they’ve paid for everything themselves. “The gifts are something that’s very rewarding to do, but we are trying to do something that makes more of a difference for the youth,” he said. They’ve been able to get the tools donated but they pay to rent space and offer a stipend to teachers. It’s all about helping poor children. “We try to get them out of the streets by giving them an opportunity to learn skills like electrical work and carpentry,” Palacios said. “We were hoping to have one school and we ended up with five in Guatemala.” The archdiocese’s Office for the Diaconate is accepting donations for the Palacios’ school. To donate, call 708-366-8900.