The Easter Bunny lives in Elmhurst, and her name is Dare Messina.
She doesn’t hide eggs or leave baskets on Easter Sunday. But on the Thursday before Easter, the 5-foot-6-inch Messina steps into her fluffy white bunny suit and hops over to DuPage Easter Seals in Villa Park, where she gives out Easter baskets and has her picture taken with about 200 special-needs children.
Messina said most of the kids are very excited about having their picture taken with her, but some are sensitive to face paint so she doesn’t wear any. And sometimes, in order to get a good picture with those kids who are afraid, she crawls around behind them without them knowing.
“The parents dress the kids up in their Easter finest,” Messina said. “It’s hard for some of the kids to smile, so Rich keeps taking their picture with me until we get one that the parents are happy with.”
The Rich that Messina refers to is Rich Rosenberg, Elmhurst Kiwanis Club chairman and owner of Elmhurst Camera.
“The Kiwanis Club of Elmhurst has been involved with the DuPage Easter Seals for about 23 years, serving children who are physically challenged and who may not be able to have a visit to the Easter Bunny at other locations,” Rosenberg said. “Dare stepped into the bunny role after the original bunny moved to Florida about 10 years ago.”
Rosenberg said passing out baskets is one thing, but being the bunny is an entirely different matter. He said a lot of patience, kindness, tolerance and honest love are needed. Establishing trust with the children is paramount.
“The children flock to Dare and her magnetic personality,” Rosenberg said. “They hug, pose and give a great big smile together.”
Perhaps Messina’s ability to connect so readily with others comes from being an Air Force brat and learning to adapt quickly to the many moves her father’s military career required. She said she changed high schools three times.
“That’s one of the things I love about Elmhurst,” Messina said. “It’s a safe community, people are stable here. And the fact that I’ve lived here 40 years, it’s the first place that feels like home.”
Indeed, Messina’s roots run deep in Elmhurst. She is on the Board of Directors for Elmhurst Kiwanis Club, is former chairman of Elmhurst Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is an Elmhurst School District 205 mentor and is a Realtor with LW Reedy.
She has two children. Her son, John, and his family live in Arizona. And her daughter, Courtney, and her family live in Elmhurst.
“Two of my grandkids go to Visitation School, where my daughter and son went,” Messina said.
Her own children and family mean a great deal to Messina, and she has a deep respect for the children and families she meets while being the Easter Seal bunny.
“I’ve grown to really admire the courage I see in the children,” Messina said. “I have seen a little girl in a wheelchair progress to a walker. Last year she walked into the room with a huge smile on her face.
"This is a meaningful day for all the Elmhurst Kiwanians, as our slogan is ‘serving the children of the world.’ ”
Messina said she has the utmost admiration for the parents who care for special needs children. She said it is the mothers who mostly attend the bunny event because the father’s are working.
“I see little tiny moms lifting up these kids that are literally dead weight,” Messina said. “To see the parents genuinely smile as the kids interact with me makes my day. They are there 24/7 with these children. They don’t sleep until the kids go to sleep. And a lot of times they have other children to take care of.”
Rosenberg and others say that it is Messina’s warmth and compassion that put the children at ease and brings joy to the parents.
“I’ve known Dare for many years as a friend and fellow Kiwanian,” Rosenberg said. “But to know her as a giver of joy brings the meaning of 'a kind heart' just that much more into focus.”
“For years, Dare has embraced the opportunity to be the Easter Bunny from the Kiwanis Club of Elmhurst,” said Paul Koch, an Elmhurst business owner and fellow Kiwanian. “It really demonstrates how much she cares about kids and people. She’s one of the nicest people I know.”
But Messina is quick to shine the limelight elsewhere.
“I want to tell you about the Precious Moments seniors that help us,” Messina said. “They are a group of about seven or eight older people who buy Precious Moments and get donations of little things to put in the Easter baskets. And then they stack them up in a great big pyramid. The kids go ga-ga over them.”