TAMPA — The elderly man would lie in bed and stare out his window at the Carrollwood Care Center, watching the birds outside for hours on end.
Then Charisse Aunchman, activities director at the assisted-living facility, asked him for a wish list for Christmas. He wanted only one thing: an illustrated book on birds.
A secret Santa fulfilled that wish last December — bringing some happiness to what would be the man’s last Christmas.
“Seeing his eyes light up really touched me,” Aunchman recalled. “It’s amazing how such a small gesture can bring so much joy. Don’t think Christmas is just for kids. Adults get the same kick out of it.”
Now in its seventh year, the national “Be a Santa to a Senior” initiative has helped distribute 1.2 million gifts to more than 700,000 financially disadvantaged or isolated seniors. The service program is sponsored by local franchises of Home Instead Senior Care, a provider of nonmedical home care and companionship for seniors.
Its purpose is to bring a little holiday cheer to a population that is sometimes overlooked.
“The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is the worst for deaths in our industry,” said Kristi Campbell, owner of the Home Instead franchise that serves Hillsborough County. “If you don’t have any family, or family members who visit, this can be a very rough time.”
Campbell’s office distributed more than 1,000 donated gifts to 300 seniors in Hillsborough County last year. This year, the number will grow to about 500 recipients.
“We could serve three times that number, but we just don’t have the manpower to meet the needs of everyone who could benefit from this,” she said.
The program works like this: Home Instead staff members work with activities directors at assisted-living facilities and rehabilitation centers, who in turn select low-income residents or those with little family contact. Those residents are asked to come up with a Christmas wish list. The requested items are put on a paper ornament with their names, and hung on small Christmas trees.
Sponsors, such as businesses or churches, put up the trees in a location where passersby can select an ornament and return the gifts to that site. The presents will be wrapped by volunteers, then delivered to the facilities by “Santa’s sleigh” — locally, Americare Ambulance Service will take on that role — for distribution at holiday parties for the seniors.
The recipient facilities, which serve Medicaid and low-income seniors, already have been chosen in Hillsborough County. But Campbell is in need of more sponsors to place the trees.
Current partners include Tampa Bay locations of Shapes Total Fitness and Famous Tate’s, Hunter’s Green Country Club and Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church.
“We don’t have enough,” she said. “And it’s the only way we can get our wish list filled.”
The seniors don’t ask for fancy presents, Campbell said. The requests are simple enough: fuzzy socks, a throw, a crossword book, body lotion, a shirt or a blouse. Because the program has nonprofit status, the donated gifts are tax-deductible.
“You can give one or many. Whatever you can afford, we’re grateful for the help,” she said. Campbell and other volunteers go on a shopping spree for additional items to supplement the donations, paying out of their own pockets.
Keisha Escoffery, activities director at Habana Health and Rehabilitation Center in Tampa, is grateful for Be a Santa.
“This way I know every single person will get something for Christmas,” she said. “That strangers step up and do this for our residents shows me that the Christmas spirit is still alive and well.”
For information on how to be a sponsor or to donate, call (813) 684-1972 or go to beasantatoasenior.com.