The strong presence of young people in the wrapping parties is impressive and inspiring
The strong presence of young people in the wrapping parties is impressive and inspiring

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 privately-run volunteer program called "Be a Santa to a Senior" comes in.  The idea behind the program is simple. It encourages volunteers to buy, wrap and deliver holiday gifts to needy elders in their community.

Kendra Kielbasa tells VOA's Faiza Elmasry the prog
Kendra Kielbasa tells VOA's Faiza Elmasry the program identifys the elders who are lonely and in a financial need and brings them Christmas gifts

Kendra Kielbasa is spokeswoman for Home Instead Senior Care, the national home care group that runs the program.  She says the planning for the Christmas holiday program starts in early August.  "We go to non-profit groups and to social services," she says. "We go to assisted living facilities, nursing homes, aand apartment buildings that serve seniors and we ask them to identify those folks that are maybe without any family that may be 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 the 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

Marywood Apartments for Seniors in Manassas' Marga
Marywood Apartments for Seniors in Manassas' Margaret Burkland says 'Be a Santa for a Senior program' makes seniors feel they are not forgotten

Kielbasa says community volunteers take those requests and go gift-shopping for each of the seniors on their list.   She describes some of the gift requests this year as "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 [pron. HIGH-dee] 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 so special to me. So all seniors are so special to me and anything I can do to volunteer and help them out is really what makes me happy."

Dozens of volunteers helped wrap the gifts
Dozens of volunteers helped wrap the gifts

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 role and especially to make 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. 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
Heyde says what's especially impressive and inspiring 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."

Home Instead's Kendra Kielbasa presents Kay Mamona
Home Instead's Kendra Kielbasa presents Kay Mamona with a Christmas gift

Seventy-one-year-old Kay Mamonas is one of the seniors on the receiving end of all this 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 for Seniors" program brings happiness to many of the residents.  "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 a hundred and thirty 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."

Many charities in the United States are facing tough times because of the current economic downturn, and 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. But 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.