People & Places

Be a Santa for a Senior program helps hundreds of seniors in Cedar Rapids

Home Instead caregiver Takia Wade labels gifts as part of “Be a Santa for a Senior” at the offices of Home Instead in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, December 14, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Home Instead caregiver Takia Wade labels gifts as part of “Be a Santa for a Senior” at the offices of Home Instead in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, December 14, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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Every year since 2003, hundreds of senior citizens write their gift requests on ornaments that adorn the “Be a Santa for a Senior” program’s community Christmas trees. They ask for hats, gloves, pajamas, stamps, and each year the list of those in need grows.

But according to Sherry Peterson, who has been managing the program for 10 years, she typically has more givers than gift requests.

“We are really in a wonderful position to be in, where we actually have more people calling wanting names than we have names,” Peterson said. “It’s a good problem to have.”

The program, organized by Home Instead Senior Care, takes place in towns and cities across the United States. Where, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, 18 percent of seniors live alone, and 43 percent report feeling lonely.

“(The program) really opened people’s eyes to the fact that we have to pay attention to our seniors,” said Peterson, who is office manager of the Cedar Rapids Home Instead branch. “We can’t just stick them in a corner.”

Locally, the program partners with 25 referral partners like nursing homes, affordable senior housing apartment centers and the Veterans Outreach Center, as well as others who work to identify seniors in need and send in their requests.

Much like other gifting programs, Be a Santa for a Senior operates through community Christmas trees that display names and requests on paper ornaments. These trees are put on display in nearly every Hy-Vee in mid-November.

Volunteer Santas pick a name, shop for the request and then return the unwrapped gift to the location, which was Dec. 15 this year.

To protect the seniors’ privacy, only a first name is displayed on the tree. Peterson said this is one way the program prevents potential scammers from acquiring another victim.

Volunteers also look through holiday cards that sometimes accompany the gifts, to ensure no personal information is exchanged.

“I would love to hope that everybody has great intentions,” she said. “But we don’t want that one person to slip through that is a scammer.”

This year, more than 600 names were hung on the community Christmas trees, and every one will get their request, wrapped and ready, come Thursday, right after Home Instead hosts its volunteer “wrapping parties.”

“If you ever want to know what kind of community we live in, all you have to do is walk into that room that all the gifts are kept and see all of them wrapped the day before they’re delivered,” Peterson said. “And that will reaffirm your hope in humanity.”

Next, teams of volunteer Santas gather the gifts and deliver them to seniors.

The program also partners with the Cedar Rapids Fire Department and firefighters come along for deliveries at senior homes to check smoke detectors and replace batteries for free.

Peterson and her husband, Gene, have been personally delivering gifts for many years and often see seniors who are moved to tears. She said delivering the gifts is the “best part of the job.”

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“I think what makes me feel the best is when you open the door and they ask ‘for me? Why me?’ and you tell them, ‘because you’re special.’” Peterson said. “Everybody should be told that at least once a year. Especially during the holidays.”

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