(Today’s writing prompt is Volunteer/Charitable Work. I’m focussing on one activity that was very important to our family for many years.)
On the first Sunday in Advent in the early 1980s, you would probably find our family making an emergency stop at Snyder’s Drug Store on the way to church, to buy a package of ornament hooks. In the early years of the Wreath of Love program in the TRUST Church Group, the organization supplied a plain wreath to each church, which was to be decorated with small construction-paper cards. On the green cards, the outline of a tree waa on the front with someone’s first name written on it. On the red cards, a stocking with a name. Inside, three Christmas ball shapes with the description of a gift written on each – the green cards might have a wish for a sweatsuit, a comforter, a radio, or a pair of Velcro-fastened sneakers; the red ones might be wishes for candy, cookies, cologne,or even a stuffed animal. These were all wishes from residents of two local nursing homes. These homes, unlike many in the Twin Cities, were not affiliated with any of the major denominations, and TRUST helped provide a chaplain for them. The residents, some of whom had no close relatives and most of whom were on Medicaid, had some simple wishes they could not fulfill on the $40 a month left to them for necessities and small luxuries. So each year the TRUST churches would distribute these cards among their members and gifts would come rolling in. I was the coordinator of this program at my church for many years – until we left town. It was one of the most satisfying parts of Christmas for me and my family, and for many other church members.
The program did not always exist in that way. As editor of the church newsletter, I’d spent several years putting in the yearly article requesting a variety of generic gifts for the two homes’ residents, and always wondered a little – what if, for instance, all the people who brought in gifts brought slips and eau de toilette, and there were elderly men getting nothing? Someone else must have considered this and come up with a brilliant solution. The chaplain and social worker would go to each resident and develop a wish list of three large and three small gifts (staff members would choose gift ideas for those who were unable to communicate any wishes) and the church members would be asked to buy one from the “Tree” card and one from the “Stocking” card for each resident, wrap and address the package, and bring it to church for pickup in time for the nursing home Christmas party.
The increased personalization of the giving process made all the difference – from the very beginning, all I had to do was announce that the cards had arrived, and I’d have to hightail it out of the sanctuary to beat the stampede of members and their children eager to get a card. My responsibility (besides hanging the cards on a wreath, which custom disappeared within a few years) was to note who had taken which card, make sure all were distributed, and make sure all the gifts came in safely and on time. There was never a serious problem with any of it. In fact, when other churches couldn’t get rid of all their cards or when new residents arrived at the last moment, we could always be called upon to take a few extra cards. (To be fair to the other churches – being a United Church of Christ congregation, we did not have any denominationally-run homes as most of the other churches did, and which they supported in similar ways.) Well, our one problem was that sometimes people would not be able to stand getting just one gift and would buy all three items the person had asked for. Not a bad problem to have.
It was always interesting to see how people made the choice of “their” resident to buy for. Sometimes it was just the name – if the resident shared your name, or the name of a favorite relative, of course you’d want to pick that one. Other people looked at the inside of the cards to see what gifts were asked for, sometimes with a view to getting a bargain (“Comforters are on sale at Penney’s this week, I can get a nice one there….”) and sometimes because it would be fun to look for the item, or the wish list suggested a kindred spirit. One friend, a historian, was quite tickled one year to be able to purchase a subscription to a Civil War history magazine for “his” resident. There was great competition for the stocking cards (these gifts were to be approximately $5 and under) among the children of the church, and great pains were taken in selecting and wrapping these gifts. The adults, too, delivered beautifully wrapped presents, which piled up in the minister’s office over the next couple of weeks until he could hardly reach his desk. They too took great care to find the right gift. I recall one dear friend, now gone, who looked all over town for a pair of blue Velcro tennis shoes. After finally being successful, she somehow found out that the person who wished for blue tennis shoes was blind and unable to communicate, and the social worker who made up the list just thought “Blue would be nice.” (This did not discourage my friend, who continued to be a loyal giver to the Wreath of Love.)
We moved away five years ago, and I handed the Wreath of Love to a friend who is still coordinating it today. She’s probably checking her list right now to make sure all the gifts are in. Over the years, one or perhaps both of those small nursing homes closed; the relationship now is with a larger home which also has a small daycare, so in addition to presents for older people, we now have some cards for children – for each child, someone chooses a book. It’s one of the best-functioning little programs I know and I hope it goes on a long time. Indeed, we ourselves found blessing.