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These Bears are making a difference

Cornerback Zack Bowman poses for photos hands out gifts an Englewood church. | Joyce Meyer Ministries Photos

Cornerback Zack Bowman poses for photos and hands out gifts at an Englewood church. | Joyce Meyer Ministries Photos

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Updated: January 25, 2012 8:09AM

The children lined up near the entrance of the heated tent outside Maranatha Church in Englewood last Saturday, anticipating the arrival of the Bears.

They were among the 100 invited, most of them homeless, and they weren’t quite sure what to make of the “Miracle on 68th Street,” an event Maranatha and Joyce Meyer Ministries teamed up to host. Many of them already had received warm-weather essentials such as coats and gloves, and they were promised Christmas gifts, which were in bags lined up near the platform.

Yet one of the children voiced the question surely others wondered, too: “How did they get the Bears to come here?”

But as the pastor’s wife, Candy LaFlora beautifully belted out a Christmas carol, the children were stunned when a black stretch Hummer limousine pulled into the church’s driveway.

Then, one by one, Bears players poured out of the oversized vehicle. There was receiver Johnny Knox, guard Lance Louis, fullback Tyler Clutts and cornerback Zack Bowman.

For the next hour, amid the chaos of children, the players handed out gift bags that included DVD players and modest laptops, as well as mini-helmets that they had signed.

During a brief break, Louis recalled how he was once in the position of these children, at a church accepting donated gifts.

“I came from this,” Louis said, shaking his head. “I went to a church in my neighborhood [in New Orleans], and they gave us little toys and snacks. I can definitely relate.”

Despite a losing streak, many Bears privately and publicly participated in this season of giving. Safety Major Wright, who has an initiative called “Random Act of Kindness,” provided lunch to 270 fans at Vienna Hot Dogs on North Damen on Monday. Then, on his day off Tuesday, defensive end Israel Idonije treated 83 children from four Chicago public schools to bowling and shopping at a Wal-Mart in Niles. Other players also hosted events but preferred no fanfare.

The Israel Idonije Foundation had long planned Tuesday’s event.

But Opportunity Knox joined in relatively last minute to the Maranatha event.

Maranatha reached out to Deneen Elementary School in Englewood to see how its congregation could help. The principal said that many students were homeless and didn’t have a sufficient jacket for winter.

Pastor Stephen LaFlora said his congregation immediately provided the funds to purchase 50 coats. But on Dec. 8, he received a phone call from David Meyer, the CEO of Hand of Hope, the outreach arm of Joyce Meyer Ministries.

“They were enthusiastically interested,” said Meyer, who drove from St. Louis to Chicago with his son David to attend the event.

Then Meyer called Bill Horn, the co-founder of Opportunity Knox.

“Johnny didn’t hesitate,” Horn said. “He was immediately all-in. Anything to help the kids, that’s what he’s all about.”

The plans were finalized the following Monday.

Before the players arrived, the church’s gospel choir and body worship team performed. There was also lunch, snacks and drinks.

Yolanda Travis beamed as her three daughters marveled at their toys and giggled about their painted faces. The family is homeless, and Travis is unable to work because of an injury.

“It’s been difficult,” she said, “but we make it.”

One of her girls received a handheld educational device, and another received a DVD player.

“It helps so much,” Travis said. “Like the DVD player, I wouldn’t have been able to buy that. I really appreciate this.”

Afterward, Knox reflected on how much fun he had.

“It humbles you, in all different kind of ways,” Knox said. “It makes you think about what you’ve been through and how you grew up, whether it was good or bad. Just to come out here and put a smile on their faces means so much. This is special for all of us.”

The children at Idonije’s event were given $100 gift cards to spend at Wal-Mart, and he — wearing a Bears-themed Santa hat — floated around the store to help them shop.

One boy told a classmate that it was “the best day of my life,” as he stood over a cartful of toys and gifts.

But Idonije was floored when Corey Carter, 13, a student at Perkins Bass Elementary, handed him a watch.

“He’s giving everyone else gifts, and I wanted to thank him,” Carter said. “Even though I’m not a football player, I still look up to him. He’s a good role model.”

Idonije said it’s “extremely humbling” to be able to pull off such an event, with the help of Wal-Mart, Chicago police officers and other volunteers. But 30 minutes later, he still glowed about Carter’s gesture.

“Those moments are the ones where you’re just speechless,” said Idonije, the Bears’ Man of the Year last season for his extensive charity work. “That watch will probably be the best present I get all year, because of what it means and where it came from.”

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