Few things bring communities and families together quite like Christmas, but while the yuletide holiday often highlights people’s better side, it can also shed light on those who are isolated and many times ignored.

The annual Be a Santa to a Senior program is currently underway, representing an opportunity for lakes area residents to pick up a Christmas tree tag, or “bulb” inscribed with the holiday wishlist of a local senior. Participants have until noon, Tuesday, Dec. 17, to drop off any number of suggested gifts before the whole haul is delivered Thursday, Dec. 19. Volunteers expect the initiative will serve roughly 565 lakes area seniors in 2019.

At the Be a Santa to a Senior tree at The Center on North Eighth Street, Brainerd, a few tags hang on the branches with first names and wish lists of program beneficiaries. The original deadline was Friday, but organizers decided to push the date back a few days when it became clear a number of tags wouldn’t be sponsored in time.

But, these holiday hopes need to be met, said Deb Cranny, executive director of Home Instead Senior Care, which sponsors the program in the lakes area. Cranny pointed to requests submitted by seniors — the likes of shampoo and grocery cards, socks and blankets, hats or a bottle of Diet Coke.

A Be a Santa to a Senior "bulb" (pictured at The Center, Friday, Dec. 13) contains the first name and gift suggestions for a lakes area senior to receive this holiday season. While the deadline originally was Friday, Dec. 13, organizers said gift drop offs will be accepted as late as noon, Tuesday, Dec. 17 at participating locations. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
A Be a Santa to a Senior "bulb" (pictured at The Center, Friday, Dec. 13) contains the first name and gift suggestions for a lakes area senior to receive this holiday season. While the deadline originally was Friday, Dec. 13, organizers said gift drop offs will be accepted as late as noon, Tuesday, Dec. 17 at participating locations. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

These aren’t like many wish lists one is likely to see for similar programs for low-income families or children, yet while these gifts are humble — more necessities than wish items — they’re more humble still compared to the sorely needed intangibles of Christmas that don’t cost a dime: the human connection.

“The senior citizens get ignored during this kind of time. Many of the people we deliver to, many of them may not have another visitor over the holiday season,” Cranny said. “What happens is that people spend Christmas with their kids and often don’t get to the elderly in their lives. They love the gifts we deliver, but they’ll also chat with our delivery people for a long time. The social aspect is crucial.”

Sue Sterling, outreach coordinator for The Center, said she’s buying gifts for the Be a Santa to a Senior program for the first time. While freely giving is a hallmark of the Christmas season, Sterling said her generosity comes out of empathy for the realities many senior citizens face that she’s seen, whether they’re in Brainerd, or across the nation.

“I feel compelled to do what I can to make one of their Christmases a little bit better,” Sterling said. “There’s no longer ‘over the hills and through the woods to see Grandma.’ Grandma is living in a one bedroom apartment and the kids are spread out across the United States. I know a lot of seniors — they don’t have their own cars, they don’t have any family nearby, they’re on a very restricted income, they’re not on social media.”

“From personal experience, it’s very difficult to ask for help,” she added. “This is something anyone can appreciate from all ends of the spectrum.”

Laura Dilley, executive director of Carefree Living-Brainerd, said gifts donated through the Be a Santa to a Senior program can often be some of the brightest moments of the year for residents under her care. While it may begin as a short jaunt to the store by givers for the simplest of things, she noted, the impact and value to recipients is incalculable.

“Everyone wants to be thought of, to know that people care,” she said. “It’s a time that we all should come together and share in the spirit of giving. That’s the wonder of Christmas. Some get a bag of groceries and a bottle of Diet Coke and their face lights up.”

Since the program’s inception in 2003, the Be a Santa to a Senior initiative has drawn more than 60,000 volunteers and provided roughly 2.1 million gifts for more than 700,000 seniors nationwide.

The Home Instead Senior Care office serving the Brainerd Lakes area has partnered with Black Bear Lodge and Saloon, Caribou Coffee, Coffee and Bagels, Edward Jones-Greg Bennett, Guide Point Pharmacy, Riverwood Bank, Frandsen Bank and Trust, The Center and Crow Wing County Social Services to help with gift collection and distribution.

“Christmas is about giving and the joy of giving,” Sterling said. “Reaching out to neighbors — even if you don’t know them — and giving, that’s what the spirit of Christmas is and that’s what we’re trying to do with this program.”

Tree locations

The following locations have trees with gift tags:

  • Black Bear Lodge and Saloon, 14819 Edgewood Drive, Baxter.

  • Caribou Coffee, 15175 Edgewood Drive, Baxter.

  • Riverwood Bank, 14540 Dellwood Drive, Baxter.

  • Coffee and Bagels, 14199 Edgewood Drive, Baxter.

  • Caribou Coffee, 425 Eighth Ave. NE, Brainerd.

  • Edward Jones, 406 Washington St. W., Suite 3, Brainerd.

  • Guide Point Pharmacy 108 S. Sixth St., Suite 1, Brainerd.

  • Home Instead Senior Care, 108 S. Sixth St., Brainerd.

  • The Center, 803 Kingwood St., Brainerd.

  • Crow Wing County Community Services, 204 Laurel St., Brainerd.

  • Frandsen Bank and Trust, 35470 County Highway 3, Crosslake.

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at twitter.com/glbrddispatch.