By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
CALEDONIA—Last year, Caledonia resident Sarah Hague’s desire to brighten up the Christmas season for seniors during the pandemic snowballed into over 400 gifts being donated to local seniors at long-term care facilities around the county. Dubbed Santa to a Senior, the program is back this year, and it’s shaping up to be even bigger.
It all started with a simple challenge: “My family decided not to exchange gifts and, instead, to donate everything we would have spent on gifts to a charity of our choosing,” said Hague.
While typically Hague would donate to a charity for children or a developing country, she was moved by the plight of seniors who were living through restrictive public health measures that saw many isolated from their loved ones over the holiday season.
“Anson Place had got hit so hard by an outbreak and my heart was breaking for those that survived and had lost so many of their friends and neighbours,” said Hague. “While nothing I could do would change the fact that they wouldn’t be able to get together with their loved ones, I just wanted to spread a little cheer and try to put a smile on someone’s face.”
She was not alone in her desire. After posting to social media, Hague was contacted by RVilla Caledonia Retirement Living on behalf of their 40 residents who would benefit from a gift. She reached out to the community for help, and within two hours had over 150 responses. With the overwhelming response, Hague reached out to other homes and in three weeks a team of dedicated volunteers handed out 400 gifts at 10 locations across Haldimand County and Six Nations.
With that great success under her belt, Hague has spent the past year planning an even bigger event within a three-person committee that also includes EMT Nicole Selby, who used her connections in the local community to connect Hague to many facilities during last year’s event, and Laurel Werbeski, owner of Escape in Caledonia, who helped store the donations at her venue and was instrumental in organizing all the donated gifts.
The group has just shy of 500 members on social media. They are adding gift drop off locations around the county and are not limiting themselves to retirement homes: “We are really encouraging anyone and everyone to nominate anyone in the community that they think could really use a pick me up.”
Additionally, the committee has reached out to schools and other programs to have local children create homemade cards for each gift. They are also collecting individual wishes from seniors so that they can get a more personalized gift “to really show that someone cares”.
“We are planning a small parade for each location; everyone will decorate their vehicle and dress up in festive wear. We will be playing Christmas music and just making it more of an event,” explained Hague. “We are hoping this will add a little fun for the residents and will also give more of our donors a fun way to get a little more involved.”
Hague said multiple businesses and programs have reached out wanting to get involved, such as advertising the initiative, being a drop-off location, or donating gifts and funds.
The final list of homes to be visited for 2021 has not yet been finalized, with Hague noting that the overall amount of homes they are able to visit will ultimately depend on the amount of donations they receive.
“Last year the list included RVilla, Anson Place, Leisure Living, Brantwood Villa, Maple Grove, Aspen Apartments, West Haldimand General Hospital, Community Living – Haldimand, Community Living – Six Nations, and Iroquois Lodge. We have reached out to all of them plus more and have already received more individual nominations than we had last year,” said Hague.
The seniors who receive gifts may benefit from the crew’s generosity, but Hague says the outpouring of generosity has had a profound impact on her: “It restored my faith in humanity and helped me (and many others) reconnect with their community at a time when it felt impossible. I quite literally consider what happened last year a Christmas miracle.”
She continued, “It speaks volumes about this incredible community. The people here are so caring and generous. I have had more offers to help than I can even keep track of.”
Hague laid out the different ways for people to get involved this year:
- Join the Facebook group for information on how to get involved.
- Sign up as a Santa to donate a gift(s).
- Share the information with your friends and family, and if you have contacts or connections with a home, share that with the organizers.
- Donate a card. Some have offered to be an ongoing pen-pal for the senior that receives their gift.
- Donate money; all proceeds will go directly towards a gift or gifts.
- Anyone that has donated a gift is welcome to participate in one of the gift giving parades.
- Sign up as a volunteer. This can include picking up or dropping off donations, or helping sort gifts.
While Santa to a Senior was born as a result of the pandemic and its specific challenges, it will live on long after COVID if Hague has her way: “There is absolutely a permanent need in our community for this initiative and I personally hope it can continue every year. Once COVID is over, we would love to have the donors be able to be more involved, possibly in collecting the wishes and dropping off the gifts.”