There is a trend that I noticed and remembered from my 17 years as a deputy sheriff, and it is not in the least bit pleasant. Christmas, that special holiday where we all gather together in familial love in celebration of the birth of Christ, is also ironically the same timeframe where sad incidents brought about by depression are at their highest. Why? The greatest culprit is loneliness.
If depression culled from loneliness is markedly higher during the Christmas season for those of us who lead regular lives, imagine what it is like for those whose circumstances prohibit them from joining their families…or have no families remaining to join. Stop reading for a second, and try to imagine yourself cut off from your loved ones. Through no fault of your own, you are alone at a time when family ties are supposed to reign supreme. Imagine the silent suffering of loneliness for these oft forgotten people. Imagine the hopelessness. Imagine your once strong feeling of self worth slipping away like sand through your fingers. This is what Christmas can be like for these people, the inhabitants of a nursing home.
This year, LuAnn Beard and her family decided to try to put a dent in the Christmas depression for a few residents of the Evergreen Manor Nursing Home in Montpelier. What the Beard family started, grew into something beyond all expectations, and the results were put on full display in a huge Evergreen Manor Christmas party. To call it a party is an understatement; this was a bash on a grand scale.
Susan Lutz, a charge nurse at Evergreen Manor, explained how the Christmas snowball of an idea by Ms. Beard, grew into an avalanche that swallowed up the jam packed dining hall at the facility with Christmas joy. It all began around the end of October, Susan said. “The Beard family decided that they don’t need anything as far as buying presents for each other; they have everything that they want. They decided that, in the spirit of Christmas, what they would do is adopt a resident. So, she contacted me and asked for some names of people that need some stuff, and we will go out and buy it, and that will be our presents to them.” Susan then turned to Linda Earle, the Director of Admissions and Social Services at Evergreen, for help. “We were looking for the people who don’t have anybody, or have limited resources. Linda wrote down about 15 names on a piece of paper, and I gave them to LuAnn.”
This was not what LuAnn Beard had in mind though, and she clarified her request to Susan. “She wanted two men and two women, with specific needs.” Susan then turned to the Activities Director for help, saying, “Give me the names of two men and two women on this list of 15, and give me specific gifts.” The results were not exactly what Susan was shooting for, as she instead received two 8.5 by 11 pages with specific gifts for the original 15. Not wanting to lose any of the notes, Susan stapled the original sheet to the two full pages of gift ideas. With the whittling down process still undone in the second week of November, LuAnn Beard came by Evergreen Manor to pick up what she thought would be the final list. Instead she received the whole enchilada of the list of 15 names, with the two pages of specified gifts. It is there that the project began to snowball in magnitude.
“She is a waitress at Rowe’s Recreation,” Susan said of LuAnn. “She’s a great waitress, and everybody knows her. They were asking her what she was going to be doing over Christmas, and she told them that she was adopting two men and two women over at Evergreen. She told them that she was shocked as to how many people were on the list, and then the patrons at Rowe’s said, ‘Hey, I’ll take a name.’ ‘Hey, give me a name.’ ‘Hey, here’s 20 bucks; go buy somebody something that’s on the list.’ This went on for weeks and weeks, until every name on the list had been passed out. Then, because the word had spread, people began dropping off presents with no names.” The avalanche of Christmas presents was on the way.
“Last Sunday,” Susan continued, “LuAnn had a party at Rowe’s for her family, and for those who had contributed gifts. Everyone dropped off their gifts. They took away two SUV loads…plus some. Everyone on the list of 15 is getting Christmas presents, and the whole thing just sort of took on a life of its own.”
That just might be the most profound understatement of 2015.
The project, which started with the Beard family, spread to Rowe’s. From there, the word got out to local churches…and then to the North Central Schools in Pioneer. After that, factor in all the other people, unaffiliated with any specific demographical group, family or organization, who received word from one of the aforementioned sources. For those of you reading this in a big city, this is how things get done in small town America. It is a throwback to the lifestyles of our nineteenth century ancestors…neighbor helping neighbor via word of mouth. The results speak for themselves.
“Over the years, many different places have donated,” added Linda. “Every year, before all this started happening, the staff here would adopt people here and there.” “We didn’t have enough gifts for everybody,” Susan said, “…and we didn’t want anybody excluded. The staff, they don’t make a whole lot of money. They have little kids, but we make sure that everybody feels included. This year though, there were so many presents, we had to store them in the Activities Office. There were so many, you could hardly walk in there. There was a little pathway to a desk. This year, instead of a resident getting one small package or gift for Christmas, they are getting BIG bags!”
“Nobody wants credit for this,” Susan added. “We didn’t do this to get credit or attention. Like I said, this thing just kind of took on a life of its own when everybody jumped in. I didn’t do all that much. Linda didn’t really do all that much. LuAnn really didn’t do all that much, nor did the patrons at Rowe’s. It was everybody…together.”
By 6:00, seating space in the dining hall was all but gone, leaving nothing but standing room. When that also became scarce, Evergreen staff began raiding offices for chairs to put in the hallway, where there was still not enough seating to accommodate everyone. As a pianist played and sang Christmas tunes, several residents sang along. As the hour neared 7:00, the pianist began, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which was the cue to action. Into the front of the hall came a group of elves who quickly dispersed into the crowd, telling the residents that the ‘Big Guy’ was definitely on his way. Shortly afterward, Santa and Mrs. Claus made their way into the dining hall.
Santa was determined to make his way around to greet every one of the residents in the hall, but because everyone was packed in so tightly, he was forced into several improvisational detours in order to get the job done.
Once Santa was able to greet everyone and eventually wind his way back to the front of the hall, the North Pole contingent of the elves, Santa and Mrs. Claus began the equally difficult task of carrying big bags and boxes through the packed hall to those who were to receive the gifts that had been collected over the past two months. The avalanche had been unleashed.
The job of a journalist is to describe what he or she has witnessed. That being the case, I will do my best to put into words what I saw happening, but there are no words in the human vernacular to adequately describe the human transformations that were taking place before my very eyes. Expressions and words of surprise were too numerous to count in the hall, but those expressions were, at the very least, the most precious gifts to be received, short of the gift of He for whom the season is named. Residents were opening bags, boxes and packages to find contained therein items for which they were in dire need, but could not afford. To see the facial expressions of these residents transitioning from listlessness to joy was something that could soften even the most steel-hardened heart. They had been remembered. Somehow, some way, someone had remembered them for Christmas. For many, it appeared that in the passing of five seconds, five decades of pain had been washed away.
Perhaps I should put my superlatives aside, and entrust Ms. Helen Belcher, a resident and gift recipient, with the description of the impact made upon her by this initially small project that ‘took on a life of its own’. Pointing out two boxes on her lap that sat beneath a loaded gift bag, she looked up from her wheelchair and said with enthusiasm, “Do you know what’s in here? I got two brand new pairs of sweat pants! I needed these so bad, but I have no money, so I couldn’t get any.” Looking away to her right, she said, “This is such a surprise. I never expected anything like this.”
After a brief pause, Ms. Belcher looked up at me, and said with a soft voice, “I feel like I am someone again.” A Christmas miracle…the restoration of self worth to a daughter of God, and all because a group of people decided to make a difference in the lives of those who are most forgotten in today’s society.
Do you have a Christmas miracle inside you or your family, with which to bring joy to someone like Ms. Belcher? Maybe this is your calling to find out for yourself just how powerful a small token of consideration and compassion can be in the life of one who is forgotten. Just pick up your phone, and call Evergreen Manor, or any other local nursing home.
Who knows? You may well be the one who starts the next avalanche!
Timothy Kays can be reached at