By REBECCA SCHWAB
OBSERVER Staff Writer
Christmas is coming to Chautauqua County, and Santa won't forget the community's seniors.
“Santa” (Ray Cenni) and County Executive Greg Edwards drop off a holiday gift to a local senior. Cenni, former superintendent of Sherman schools, is a long-term care ombudsman to the County Home and annually plays Santa for the Christmas bag distribution.
The Office for the Aging is preparing for their annual "Holiday Bags for Solitary Seniors" project, a favorite holiday service project of many on the OFA staff as well as community members who volunteer. The goal of the project is to brighten the holidays of seniors in our community who otherwise would not receive a present or visit at Christmastime. OFA staff and volunteers assemble gift bags full of treats, small gifts, non-perishable food and personal care items, and deliver them to local seniors in the days leading up to Christmas. Thanks to generous contributors like Hurlburt Church, residents of Chautauqua Institution and Ed Schmidt, OFA has also been able to bring entire Christmas dinners to the seniors in recent years, making the visits that much more special.
The project started in 2004, when then-employee Heidi Harding, with the Elder Abuse Prevention Program, teamed up with Kate Finch, current senior services coordinator. The ladies realized the need for this type of program in the local community and knew that miracles don't always happen by themselves. They got together with Laperl Hayes from the First Presbyterian Church in Dunkirk, and that year they were able to bring gift bags to about a dozen seniors. The program has grown every year since, but as Finch explained, it has been an evolutionary process.
"We started by doing a Christmas dinner for the seniors," Finch said. "But for different reasons we didn't have a good turnout. So we decided to bring Christmas to them, along with some goodies and treats and specially-picked items. I took the money we had for the dinners and went out buying things."
They began by getting shoeboxes from Payless and filling them with things like gloves and puzzle books. What started as a small but heartfelt endeavor has become a community-wide effort of impressive proportions. In 2011, OFA delivered 165 gift bags filled with household items, small presents including blankets and hand-knit items, and homemade cookies. These were paired with delicious, full-course ham dinners.
Donations come from organizations and individuals from all throughout Chautauqua County. Government funds are not used for this project; everything in the gift bags comes from the generosity and support of the community.
The work isn't over when the donations come in. Dozens of man hours are spent counting items and packing bags. The work that goes into this project behind the scenes would impress even the most efficient of Santa's elves.
"It's unbelievable busy around here, but worth it," Jane Morris, OFA employee and the project's contact person, said. "We use our hallway at the office (to store items), and the lobby of our building is the assembly area. We just have as many people as possible working."
Chautauqua County OFA Director Mary Ann Spanos explained that they try to keep things for the project in order, and this makes the work easier.
"The week before we give the bags away, OFA is full of items," she said. "We usually spend one whole day organizing and packing the bags. Volunteers and friends come in and we do an assembly line. We want to make sure each bag is similar; that all the goodies are equally distributed. We have lists to help us get organized and keep all the baskets kind of uniform."
The seniors' reactions make all of the hard work worthwhile for the event's organizers and volunteers.
"They're very happy to get (the bags)," Morris said. "We don't have a certain date or time we make the deliveries, so there are no appointments. We just knock on the door and say 'Merry Christmas, this is from the Office for the Aging.' There's always a card attached, signed by everyone who contributed. The seniors are very grateful. We've gotten some very nice thank you cards."
Finch recalled a couple of stories from the program's past that still make her smile, years later.
"One driver for Meals on Wheels knew a local woman, and he referred her to us. He said she really needed new pajamas. Hers were in bad shape, with safety pins holding them together in parts; he noticed them when he delivered to her. So he gave me $10 and I took some of my money and I went to Penny's and got her the most gorgeous pajamas ... She just loved them."
The other memory is of a woman who didn't have any family. When Finch worked with her to fill out some forms, Finch asked her who she wanted to put down for her emergency contact. The woman, for a moment, was at a loss. She couldn't immediately think of any next-of-kin or friends she could count on to help her should the need arise. But then she had an idea.
"The county executive brought me a Christmas present," she told Finch. "Let's put him down."
She then pulled out the past Christmas's gift bag for Finch, showing off its contents. She had saved everything but the food, obviously still proud of the items Edwards had personally delivered to her door. Finch asked the woman doubtfully if the county executive would be able to help. Did he know where her things were? Pajamas and medication in case he needed to bring them to a hospital?
"No," the woman said, "but I could tell him."
Although Finch and the woman were eventually able to come up with another emergency contact person, Finch told Edwards about the conversation, and he was touched. He even sent the woman a letter, letting her know she was still in his thoughts.
THE GIFT OF GIVING
The county executive wasn't the only volunteer whose life was brightened by this program, however. The volunteers who involve themselves every year are just as excited as the seniors who receive the gifts and visitations.
Finch explained that helping with this project has become a seasonal tradition for community members.
"I have lots of volunteers who love to be involved, even pick out the bags. I've had a couple of people who come in and say 'don't forget I want to donate some bags.' A lot of Meals on Wheels delivery people like to take bags to the seniors, too. There's one woman from Holy Trinity who made a hundred plates of Italian pastries last year to go with the bags, and she's doing it again this year."
Spanos added that the OFA is "amazed and empowered by the generosity of our community. Last year, one Dunkirk church collected a huge truckload of items for the bags and then brought over 120 plates of Christmas cookies on the day the bags were being assembled ... the contributions were humbling and the opportunity to deliver the bags filled everyone who touched the project with belief in the Christmas spirit."
Local knitting groups have donated their time and talent as well, donating hundreds of items, including scarves, hats, mittens, shawls, and laprobes to keep the seniors warm and comfortable.
"We truly would not be able to do this without the help and support of the community," Spanos said. "We're lucky to have so many champions."
But as successful as the OFA has been in bringing Christmas to our county's seniors, the referral list for seniors in need of this kind of attention gets longer every year, exceeding the program's resources. Morris said that referrals continue to come in from organizations like Meals on Wheels, local churches, different outreach programs, OFA's Mayville and Jamestown offices, their day program, area veterans, and concerned individuals.
"The needs are not decreasing," Spanos said. "But if we can continue to have the support of the community, we can keep growing. There is always need out there, and it has been even more difficult for people to give due to the economy, but we're still seeing such a response. It's really wonderful. Many churches got involved in the last two years and we've received donations from community members and local businesses."
As the OFA plans for this year's Holiday Bags for Seniors, help is needed to collect the following items: 150 single rolls of paper towels, 150 boxes of Kleenex (tissue), 150 rolls of foil and/or saran wrap, 150 tubes of toothpaste, 150 jars of spaghetti sauce, 150 boxes of macaroni, 100 pairs of women's gloves, 50 pairs of men's gloves, 50 cans of shaving cream, 300 cans of non-perishable goods (soup/vegetables/ fruit), 50 boxes of macaroni and cheese or Ramen noodles, 150 new/used books, 150 crossword/find a word type books or playing cards, 150 chap sticks/lip balms, 150 toothbrushes, 100 women's knit hats, 50 men's knit hats, 50 blankets/lap robes, 150 bottles of dish detergent, 150 hand sanitizers, 150 calendars, 150 bottles of body lotion, 150 boxes of cookies, 150 boxes of candy (some/all sugar free would be good), homemade cookies (plated 6 cookies per plate), 150 boxes of cereal or oatmeal, 150 individual microwave popcorn bags. Any miscellaneous items would also be appreciated.
The OFA is also looking for volunteers to help deliver the bags to the senior's homes the week before Christmas. Anyone interested in becoming involved may call Jane Morris at 753-4479. The OFA welcomes participation on any level in this very special project. With the help of friends and neighbors, Spanos, Finch, Morris, and all of the OFA employees can prove that the joy of Christmas is truly meant to be felt by people of all ages.
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Mary Ann Spanos, director for the Office for the Aging, along with Katie Finch, Jane Morris and the rest of the OFA staff, are grateful to the following donors for their continued and much-appreciated support: Chautauqua Institution Hurlburt Church, Fredonia Methodist Church, Holy Trinity Church in Dunkirk, Beaver Club in Fredonia, Carriage House, Dunkirk Senior Center members, County Executive Greg Edwards, Dunkirk WWII Vets Club, Harvest Chapel Free Methodist Church, Frito-Lay Corp, Chautauqua County IDA, Department of Public Facilities and Landfill, DSS Cost Avoidance Unit, First Presbyterian Church in Dunkirk, Chautauqua County Federal Credit Union, Paws N Pals 4-H group, Kiwanis Beavers of Jamestown, RSVP, Chautauqua Region Quilt Guild, Chautauqua County Health Department, Walmart, Ed Schmidt, Linda Burgess, Nancy Carmichael, Brian Coffaro, Jerry Jusko, Pat Pacos, Linda Hepler, Kathy Jordon, Brent Sheldon, Joanne Tofil, Ann Schlickter and Kathleen Sullivan, and everyone else who comes together each year to donate funds and items, assemble bags, and deliver them to area seniors.