‘Santa’s Seniors’: Holiday happiness brought to local shut-ins

“I’ve always believed in Santa Claus.”

Children often get excited at what Saint Nick brings them each Christmas, but shut-in residents got to relive that feeling when Santa’s Seniors delivered their presents in December.

In 2005, the program began because the Williamsport Sun-Gazette’s promotional panel realized that much is done for children and families during the holiday season, but the same could not be said for seniors, said Connie Tobias, Sun-Gazette human resources manager.

“Especially seniors who may not have anyone to share the holidays with either because family has moved or passed on,” Tobias said. “We wanted to help seniors remember when they were growing up and raising families and contributing and to let them know they have not been forgotten, to let them know that people do remember their contributions and want them to experience some of the joy of the season.”

After the idea was born in late September, early October, the Sun-Gazette approached Backyard Broadcasting and STEP Meals on Wheels. With help from the community and Kellogg’s plant in Muncy, they filled about 125 containers with goodies for the seniors. STEP identified and provided Meals on Wheels recipients who would be alone over the holiday.

Since that first year, Santa’s Seniors has expanded to include all Meals on Wheels recipients in Lycoming and Clinton counties – about 400 people per year.

“You don’t know how much you help,” said one man as he received his presents.

Those who receive the presents are 60 years and older, homebound, fairly isolated and do not get out at all, said Michelle Koons, STEP Office of Aging volunteer coordinator.

“Some of them have been with for several years,” Koons said, meaning that some come to expect the presents every year. But for those who have never experienced this before? ” ‘Oh my. For me? All this?’ They’re all excited,” Koons said.

Donations and help now come from the community, Kellogg’s, Helminiaks Greenhouse, Frito-Lay, Van Campen Motors, Utz, Weis Markets, the Pennsylvania State Police, Troop F Montoursville and the Lamar Barracks.

For several years, in addition to being a co-sponsor, Backyard Broadcasting had room at their offices to allow volunteers to sort, store and pack directly from their Four Mile Drive location. Now Howard Dean, a local businessman, provides volunteers with the facility to use for those purposes. Every year, Backyard Broadcasting radio stations remind their listeners that Santa’s Seniors is accepting donations.

Several Sun-Gazette employees participate in the program by collecting donations from drop-off places, delivering to the facility, sorting into categories, packing the boxes with other volunteers and overseeing the distribution and delivery to the local Meals on Wheels centers, Tobias said.

“Without these business partners, we couldn’t do what we do for Santa’s Seniors,” Tobias said. “But equally important is the community who provides us with so many of the gifts that go into the Christmas boxes lotions, soups, hot drinks, gloves, scarves, socks, throws, puzzle books, jigsaw puzzles any number of single gift items decks of cards, note pads, writing instruments and the list goes on.”

A local business provides tables to make the sorting and packing easier. Meals on Wheels volunteers help pack and deliver as well as “new friends,” said Tobias, who simply show up to help.

“Some people call because they see the ad in the paper and want to help,” Koons said. “They’re not volunteers, but they end up becoming volunteers.”

Requests for donations began in early November. Donations are collected until about 10 to 12 days before Christmas. Once the collecting finishes, the items are sorted by type, and if appropriate, by gender.

Depending on availability to sort during collection, the sorting process usually finishes about five days before delivery. Building the boxes and lids and packing takes about three to four days. The boxes then are ready to go before the distribution date, the day before Christmas Eve, by Meals on Wheels volunteers.

“To the men and women who receive these boxes, we hope it is a feeling of happiness, a feeling of not having been forgotten, of still being a part of the community around them and maybe some reminiscing that brings back holidays past,” Tobias said. “To the people who donate we hope it brings a fulfillment and joy in having shared some of their own holiday enthusiasm and blessings to someone they remembered, if not individually, then as a group of people similar to those with whom they have shared past times and holidays.”

For Tobias, the Sun-Gazette did not pick the program, but instead, cared it into reality.

Much has changed from the beginning in a cold and dark warehouse with three people sorting and packing 125 tubs.

“To a well-lit, centralized location where we compile quantities of items that reflect the caring of one for another, to the recipients who in some cases are simply overwhelmed and can’t believe ‘this is for me?’ For the expressions on faces that mean so much more than words can say, that is why we have cared Santa’s Seniors into a reality.”

It is not for self-recognition, even though it is a lot of work, she said.

“But because our seniors are truly treasures and when they are given a small measure of attention, not only do they share stories, but they simply glow!”