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Season of Giving: Council on Aging programs focus on helping older people

No senior should be forgotten.

That’s the mantra at the Council on Aging – Southern California, an Orange County-based nonprofit whose programs focus on older and disabled adults around the region.

Much of what the organization does depends on volunteers – whether it’s those who serve in the Ombudsman Program that sends advocates into long-term care facilities to check on the welfare of residents, the unbiased counselors who annually help Medicare beneficiaries sort through byzantine healthcare options, the watchdogs who look out for financial abuse of the elderly, or other services.

“We are here to help seniors remain healthy, connected and protected,” says Lisa Wright Jenkins, Council on Aging president and chief executive officer.

And bring some joy at this time of year to those who may end up lonely and isolated otherwise.

For two weeks during the winter holiday season, volunteers and staff turn empty office space donated by the Irvine Company into a bustling and highly organized Santa’s workshop where they box, wrap and bag donated gifts for thousands of residents in skilled nursing facilities and residential care homes who are without family or friends to visit them, let alone come bearing presents.

In some cases, the SmileMakers Holiday Gift Program provides the only gift they will get.

Those $25 gifts – mainly lap blankets, sweaters, jackets, sweatsuits, shirts or blouses, robes, pajamas – are matched specifically to the folks for whom they are requested. All are newly purchased by donors who sign up online to fulfill a gift request from a senior, choose an “Angel Tag” from a company Christmas tree, or donate funds for the Council on Aging to do the shopping.

The ombudsmen make deliveries to the smaller board-and-care homes, while larger residential facilities with dozens of recipients typically will manage pickup and delivery. Each gift also comes with a handcrafted greeting card made by school children, teens and members of civic groups through an effort organized by two Orange County Girl Scouts.

At the start of the SmileMakers program back in 1997, 25 gifts were handed out. This year, about 5,000 requests are being fulfilled, underwritten in part by corporate donations – including $10,000 from Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian and $7,500 from Pacific Life Foundation – that make up the bulk of $18,500 in cash donations.




To pull it off, the SmileMakers need about 20,000 square feet of empty space. Volunteers work at one of 13 boxing-and-wrapping stations set up from one end of the building to the other. That’s on one side of the space; on the other, the wrapped and bagged gifts are staged for pickup and delivery. Some of the larger residential facilities can have requests for 100 or more gifts.

It’s all coordinated so that the right gift gets wrapped and tagged with the first name and a tracking number for the recipient. Each station is stocked with stacks of gift boxes folded by 58 volunteers the week of Thanksgiving at a “Box Party,” along with wrapping paper and ribbon cut to the correct size by longtime volunteer Cindy Stieger of Newport Beach. (She also sees to the recycling.)

Jamie Cansler, the Council on Aging’s director of development and community outreach, oversees the operation. She could only think of five occasions when someone got the wrong gift.

Sometimes, there’s a special request to fill. Like the gentleman who wanted a CD of music sung in his native Farsi. Cansler had to order it online and it wasn’t going to arrive in time for the holiday party where he lived. So she tucked a note with the lap blanket he received that the CD would be delivered later. Then there was the woman who wanted a too-expensive bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume. She got a knock-off scent that pleased her just the same, Cansler said.

“She said every time she smelled the fragrance it brought back memories of the things she used to do.”

On Wednesday afternoon, a group of nurses from Kaiser Permanente’s Anaheim Medical Center joined other volunteers on the second floor of a building at the Executive Park business complex in Irvine for gift wrapping. The Anaheim nurses and their counterparts from Kaiser’s Irvine medical complex have had a friendly rivalry going collecting gifts and volunteering as wrappers the past few years.

Blanca Alfaro, an administrative nurse, has always had to work in past years when the Anaheim Kaiser group joined the SmileMakers operation.

“This time I said, ‘I’m going!’” Alfaro said as she decorated a gift box with red metallic-looking wrapping paper accented with silvery snowflakes. “It’s just wonderful that we’re able to do this.”

Liesel Blau and Mia Graham, Girl Scout Troop 4651, came up with the card-making idea in 2016 for their Silver Award project. Blau was 10 at the time. She’s now 16 and a junior at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, but just as enthusiastic about the undertaking – maybe more so.

Her own grandparents will be flying out for the holidays next week from South Carolina. She knows other older people are less fortunate.

“I feel like every single person should be able to feel love during the holidays,” said Blau, who had stopped by the SmileMakers workshop for an afternoon visit. Youth in middle schools and high schools, adults in local civic groups, families and groups of friends now help create the cards, using templates and guidelines the two girls developed for what they call Operation Happy Holidays.

For all the giving that comes from the donors, the volunteers and the card makers who assist with the SmileMakers gift program, there’s some receiving, too. Some of the seniors send back their own thank you notes or leave phone messages with the Council on Aging.

“You certainly live up to your name!” one woman wrote in flowing cursive penmanship. “I love the reindeer card and the craftsmanship … I am truly thankful for the warm cozy blanket. It almost feels like a hug.”

Here’s a look at how the SmileMakers Holiday Gift Program works and its impact.


Source: Orange County Register

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