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Efforts stepped up to fill holiday gift wishes

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December 6, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES and CYRUS LEVESQUE

ADDISON COUNTY — The Christmas season is a time of buying and giving gifts to friends and family, but there are a large number of people who have difficulty finding the money for even the meanest gifts for family members, not to mention bare necessities.

There are many local efforts that go beyond just helping provide bare necessities to offer a little something extra during the holidays to people who are struggling financially.

“There are people that find themselves all of a sudden in a difficult financial situation, and we try to be there (for them),” said Helen Haerle, who coordinates a Christmas shop at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Middlebury, which will welcome those in need from around the county this Saturday and on Dec. 15.

Children are often the focus of the holiday season, especially when it comes to giving gifts. But in addition this year, a group of area agencies are collaborating with corporate sponsors to make sure isolated seniors also have something special to unwrap. 

“I’m often struck by the number of seniors in our community who don’t have family,” said Deborah Foster, development coordinator for Addison County Home Health and Hospice, one of the partner agencies. “They often have no one to provide them with a little happiness.”

Foster’s agency has teamed up with Home Instead Senior Care in South Burlington and the Rite Aid store in Middlebury for the “Be a Santa to a Senior” program, which coordinates the collecting, wrapping and delivering of holiday gifts to “elder orphans,” seniors without family nearby, or at all.

According to the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA), as many as 60 percent of nursing home residents receive no regular visitors. And among those living at home, they often lack access to transportation, making it difficult to see other people.

“You don’t stop and think about how lonely that can be,” Foster said.

Early last month, Home Health staff members identified Addison County seniors who could benefit from the program and helped those seniors put together wish lists, including anything from socks to hats to lip balm. Home Instead then put together Christmas ornaments with the first name of each senior and their gift requests, which were hung on a tree at Rite Aid.

Since then, shoppers at the Route 7 store have been filling those requests and dropping them in a basket beneath the tree. On Saturday, Dec. 8, volunteers will meet at the GE Healthcare offices off Shelburne Road in South Burlington at 10 a.m. to wrap the presents so Champlain Valley Agency on Aging can deliver them to the seniors.

Twenty-five local seniors have their names on the Christmas tree ornaments, according to Foster.

“We’re very excited to (have) this program to Addison County because we think there’s such a need for seniors to be happy during this festive season,” she said.

The Middlebury College community is participating in a number of area gift drives this year, including the Addison County Community Action Group’s (ACCAG) Giving Tree program, in which local businesses and volunteers fill the holiday wish lists of area families who cannot afford to buy gifts themselves. These families have until Friday, Dec. 7, to fill out applications for the program.

According to Tiffany Sargent, director of the college’s Alliance for Civic Engagement, students, faculty and staff put together 75 trees this season, filling requests for brand new clothes, books and toys. They left the gifts unwrapped so the parents of the children the trees are destined for can be involved in the process as well.

“We ran out (of trees) in, like, three or four days because there was so much interest this year,” Sargent said. 

Members of the college community have also been collecting new books to donate to Ilsley library, which in turn delivers the books to the Community Action Group’s Christmas Shop.

This is the 17th year for the Ilsley book drive, which has already garnered more than 500 books, mostly children’s, for the shop this year. Collection boxes are still filling up at the college, the Bridge School, Mary Hogan Elementary School and the Vermont Book Shop.

Becky Dayton, owner of the Vermont Book Shop said her store’s box has been filling up quickly. That could be because for every two books a shopper donates, she throws in another.

“One woman came in and bought $120 worth of books to donate, and that’s a lot in kid’s books,” said Vermont Book Shop staff member Marty Rader. “That’s really special.”

The holidays also motivate teens in the area to get involved. Rebecca Jimmo and Allyson Wetmore, have decided to collect money and food for food shelves in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.

Jimmo and Wetmore started a group called Happy Holidays for Everyone as part of the Age of Legality class at Mount Abraham Union High School. They ask anyone who would like to make a donation to send it to Mrs. Benway at Mount Abe, 7 Airport Drive, Bristol VT 05443. Checks should be made payable to the school and should have “HHFE” on the memo line.

Some programs are new or new to Addison County, but others have been around for a long time. Organizing Christmas gift-giving programs has been a passion for some people for decades. Persis Rowe of Ripton has been part of the Volunteers for Community Action, which has been together for about 40 years now, she said.

The group holds its free Christmas shop at the ACCAG offices on Boardman Street in Middlebury (it is open this year on weekdays from Dec. 3 to 14, 9 a.m.-noon and 1-3 p.m.), but is an independent group with a nucleus of five or six volunteers that got started among people who knew each other through Middlebury’s Memorial Baptist Church.

“It’s really taken off,” Rowe said. Their Christmas shop is a modest project, but over the years these volunteers have been able to offer more and more to those in need. “We’re just a few women, but the community has certainly gotten behind it.”

Rowe said that when the group got started, all the gifts they gave out were secondhand, but now, almost everything is new. Two members of the group shop carefully for bargains and sales all year long for the gifts they give out at the end of the year.

“When we started out it was good but used,” Rowe said. “Everything is new now.”

In addition, they often have gifts with a personal touch, like hand-knitted or quilted hats or scarves. Rowe said their work can be very moving to those they work with.

“Sometimes the tears come down their faces,” she said.

Many churches and religious groups have gift-giving projects of their own. The county’s Catholic churches work with each other closely, according to Haerle of Middlebury. The St. Mary’s Christmas shop is a group effort that includes members of the St. Ambrose parish in Bristol and St. Peter’s parish in Vergennes.

St. Mary’s Christmas shop will be held on two days this year: Dec. 8 and Dec. 15, 9:30-11:30 a.m.

MANY FAMILIES SERVED

Haerle estimated that it serves about 115 families, and all are welcome. “Anybody that comes, we let them select something,” she said.

About 60 percent of those who come to the Christmas shop are regulars, Haerle said, but every year the rest are new people. Some are new to the area, while others may have recently lost their jobs or gone through a divorce or some other major change in their life that can make funds hard to find.

Organizing all these efforts takes a lot of work. Area businesses donate money, time and gifts, and it takes a small army of volunteers to make sure that those gifts get to those in need. For those volunteers, the work can be trying, but also very rewarding.

“It takes a certain kind of person to work with the poor,” Rowe said. “They come home sometimes in tears themselves … it’s very gratifying work.”

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