Long-running Gift Giving Program Ensures Utica Elderly Are Not Forgotten During the Holidays

UTICA, N.Y. (December 5, 2017) — For more than 172 residents at Heritage Health Care Center in Utica, N.Y., Christmas will be merry and bright once again thanks to the tireless work of Sandy “Santa Claus” Smith and her band of helper elves.

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This year, as she has done for almost two decades, the West Winfield resident and her team of volunteers are already hard at work meeting the gift requests of residents receiving care at the 150-year-old, non-profit facility.

“To me this is what Christmas is all about, and it makes me feel good at the holidays,” said Smith, a sprightly 67-year-old, who plans to step down following this Christmas after 17 years of creating smiles for others. “Kids get remembered with toy drives, but the people in nursing homes are often forgotten.”

Smith said she began the tradition in 2001, the year her mother passed away following a stint in rehab at Heritage. She was working at the Savings Bank of Utica where she was the president of the Employees Club and the club had monies that needed to be used up, since it was being disbanded. Smith suggested getting some names of residents who could use some gifts at the home and that year they adopted 10 residents.

The following year, one of Smith’s co-workers asked her if she could organize the present drive again, as they all had so much fun buying for the residents and granting their Christmas wishes. So, Smith put the word out and about 25 co-workers volunteered to adopt a resident. Each year the present drive grew bigger and bigger and, even after Smith left the bank to pursue her own business, she continued the drive with the support of volunteers from the Federated Church of West Winfield, her craft group and local Rotarians.

Smith and her passionate volunteers take it upon themselves to fulfill as many resident wishes as possible. In years past they have purchased fleece jackets, scarfs, outfits, an old truck calendar, a calendar with scenic photos of Vietnam, as well as a hat for a proud Navy veteran with the words, “The Navy Rules the Seas.”

As we speak, red, white and green wrapped packages cover Smith’s living room floor along with her sofas and chairs. The presents will continue to pile up until Wednesday, Dec. 20 at 10 a.m. when Smith and half a dozen volunteers make the short drive to Heritage Health Care Center to place the presents under the facility’s Christmas tree where they will remain until Christmas morning.

Although Smith doesn’t see the residents open the gifts Christmas morning, she and her team feel fulfilled knowing that they have helped brighten someone else’s day.

“It’s important to me that these residents know that someone cares and thinks they are worthwhile,” said Smith. “That makes it all worth doing.”

“We are extremely grateful to Sandy and her volunteers for all that they do for our residents,” added Heritage Health Care Center Therapeutic Recreation Director Michelle Mathis. “We put five to eight `wish list’ items on the list for each resident and they will often get them all, along with trays of delicious homemade baked cookies. It’s unbelievable the work that that do to put a smile on our residents’ faces.”

For those interested in volunteering or donating gifts to this year’s drive, please contact Mathis at (315) 797-7392 x 320.