The Christmas season is usually a festive time, as families and friends gather to celebrate the holidays, sharing delicious meals and exchanging gifts. But for some elders who live by themselves, the holidays can be an especially lonely time. That's where a private volunteer program comes in. The idea behind the "Be a Santa to a Senior" program is simple. It encourages volunteers to buy, wrap and deliver holiday gifts to needy elders in their community.
Kendra Kielbasa is spokeswoman for Home Instead Senior Care, the national home care group that runs the program. "We go to non-profit groups and to social services," she says. "We go to assisted living facilities, nursing homes, apartment buildings that serve seniors that may be on a low income and we ask them to identify the seniors that are either without any family, that are maybe lonely at the holidays or unthought-of or any seniors that have a financial need."
At the same time, Kielbasa adds, her organization looks for local businesses that are willing to support the program. Each of the participating businesses displays a Christmas tree on their premises decorated with special hanging ornaments. "We give them ornaments that have the name of the senior and their age -- if we know it -- along with a request of a gift for them," Kielbasa explains. "So it could be as simple as: Mary would like a robe in size extra large. We make ornaments for each and every name that we have. So, we need to find the businesses."
Food and winter clothing were the most-requested gifts this year
Kielbasa says community volunteers take those requests and go gift-shopping for the seniors on their list. "It's heart-breaking. Our most requested gift was grocery store gift cards," she says. "People where asking for a loaf of bread and some money to buy it. So that was probably 65 to 70 percent of our requests this year, grocery store gift cards or a book of stamps. We do have a wide assortment of other things that seniors like such as books on CD, sweaters and robes any size, male or female for all of these, and the basics: head scarves, gloves slippers and socks."
In early December, Kielbasa says, volunteers gathered to wrap the gifts. Diane Heyde is one of the volunteers who helped with that effort. "My grandmother was fortunate enough to live to be 102 and a half," she recalls. "She was very special to me. So all seniors are very special to me and anything I can do to volunteer and help them out is really what makes me happy."
Heyde says she helped coordinate the program's two "wrapping parties" in Manassas, Virginia. "There were a lot of volunteers there who helped get the gifts out to the tables," she explains. "Other volunteers took the lead role in making sure that gifts for certain communities stay together and get the process going and making sure that the individuals and volunteers who were there to wrap had a supply of wrapping papers and scissors and tape and everything. And there are a lot of volunteers who will be delivering the gifts to all of the recipients throughout the community."
Many young people are volunteering time and effort to help seniors
What's especially impressive and inspiring, Heyde says, is the strong presence of young people in this volunteer effort. "The kids were great," she says. "I did have the opportunity to speak with them at the end, and they all had a great time. Most of them had never done anything to this magnitude as far as volunteering and helping out. They truly got into the spirit. And in the second party one of the students took the microphone and she got everyone to start singing Christmas songs, which to me helped bring up the whole spirit of why we were there."
Seventy-one-year-old Kay Mamonas is one of the seniors on the receiving end of all that holiday spirit. "I think that's wonderful, she says. "I really do. It shows that people care." Margaret Burkland, a manager at the Marywood Apartments for Seniors in Manassas, Virginia, says the "Be A Santa to a Senior" program has brought happiness to many of the residents in the suburban communities. "Last year was our first year with Home Instead when they sponsored the 'Be Santa to a Senior.' And every single resident here- we have 130 plus residents- everyone got a gift. They were just amazed. They couldn't get over the generosity of people out there. It lets them be aware that they are not forgotten, whereas a lot of the times seniors are forgotten. I think it keeps their spirit up."
While many charities in the United States are facing tough times because of the current economic downturn, program spokesperson Kendra Kielbasa says individual donors this year were more generous than anyone had expected. "We have 1141 names on our list," she observes. "We have a gift for each and every one on our list. We were concerned this year if we would get a gift for each senior. What we found was that we didn't have as much participation comparatively as we did last year. However, the people this year really gave and gave big. So I think people who realized that they were fortunate were very willing to help."
Kendra Kielbasa says the "Be a Santa for a Senior" program succeeds because it brings the community together in a collective gesture of love and caring, and that, she says, is what the Christmas holiday is all about.