The resident celebrity of the Wonder Lake Neighbors Food Pantry is celebrating a big birthday in a familiar fashion — with a food and funding drive to benefit the pantry.

Virginia Hartung soon will celebrate her 98th birthday, and the pantry has organized a fundraising and food donation drive in her honor.

Hartung, who lives in Wonder Lake, has volunteered with the pantry for 11 years. She serves as a greeter and is known for her positive attitude and says she will do anything to help the pantry — as long as it doesn’t involve learning to use a computer.

“If I was younger, sure, I’d have liked to get into learning that. I just have enough up in my head that I don’t want to remember any more,” Hartung said.

When Hartung turned 93, the pantry decided to start a fundraiser aimed to raise the amount of her age multiplied by 100 in food and monetary donations. Her “fan base” often gave her birthday gifts, especially Elvis memorabilia — Hartung is a huge fan of the music icon — but she had enough gifts for herself and wanted to give back to the community.

“She would get a lot of gifts. She is quite the celebrity. I thought, how can I tap into this local celebrity and benefit the food pantry. Everybody wants to help Virginia, but you can only give her so many Elvis things, so we came up with Virginia’s Challenge,” said Kim Halper, who describes herself as Hartung’s “agent.”

In April, she will turn 98, so the pantry is hoping to raise $9,800 and 9,800 pounds of food. The challenge began Feb. 21 and ends on her birthday, April 21.

In 2016, Hartung had a setback when she fell and broke her leg. In addition to needing surgery to fix her leg, she also learned she needed a pacemaker. She spent several weeks in the hospital rehabilitating and made a full recovery.

“If she misses a week, people panic. The first question is ‘Where is Virginia?’ She is so loved by this community. She is truly a celebrity, and we are lucky she volunteers with us,” said Halper.

When she is not volunteering with the pantry, Hartung loves relaxing, especially outdoors. She never misses an episode of her favorite soap opera, and loves listening to music. Up until last summer, she mowed her own lawn, until family and friends insisted on helping.

Hartung often is asked how she is always laughing and stays so friendly with pantry visitors.

“I put myself in their place. If you come in and nobody greets you or makes you feel like you’re wanted, I would want to turn around and walk out,” she said.

Halper, who began volunteering at the pantry at the same time Hartung did, credits her with bringing smiles to pantry staff and visitors.

“Virginia brings a zest for life. Because she loves life and is so joyful and caring, that’s infectious. People come in sometimes sad or mad but leave happy after seeing her. She’s a life changer in more than one way,” Halper said.

Neighbors Food Pantry serves close to 300 families each month in Wonder Lake, Woodstock, Greenwood, McCullom Lake and Ringwood. The pantry also will host a luncheon with Hartung as the guest of honor from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at Dusty’s Pizza, 7613 Howe Road, Wonder Lake. Donations are being accepted for silent auction items as well as for Virginia’s Challenge.

Hartung has her own Facebook fan page and is often featured on the Facebook page for the food pantry. For information or to contribute to Virginia’s Challenge 2017, visit wlfoodpantry.com or call 815-355-5459.

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