Senior Engagement Project showers seniors with gift baskets, loveOct 25, 2021 03:35PM ● By Jan Weeks & Cloie Sandlin
Senior Engagement volunteers combat loneliness by bringing care packages and spreading cheer to senior residents at local nursing homes, care centers and senior apartment complexes.
Giving never felt so good!
The early months of the pandemic took a massive toll on seniors. Seeing the widespread loneliness and isolation elders were experiencing reminded Brenda Case of how her mother felt after an illness took away her independence.
Prior to getting sick, Case’s mother was quite active in her community. When Case was forced to step in as her full-time caregiver, she realized how much her mother was dependent on her for social interaction and how lonely seniors can become when they’re no longer independent, even with family members present.
“Even though she wasn’t in a facility, I was the only face she was seeing,” Case, 58, said.
The loneliness and isolation created by the pandemic inspired Case to create the Senior Engagement Project in November 2020.
The Senior Engagement Project is a volunteer-run subsidiary of Mutual Aid Partners, a grassroots nonprofit organization formed at the start of the pandemic. Senior Engagement volunteers combat loneliness by bringing care packages and otherwise spreading cheer to senior residents at nursing homes, care centers and senior apartment complexes. Volunteers may also arrange special visits to homebound seniors, as well as rehabilitation facilities that have clients whose activities are restricted.
“We want them to feel included, like they’re part of something,” said volunteer Lori Rienstra, 62. “So many of us have elders in our family and we want them to feel as included and loved as the next person.”
“It’s really bringing communities together across all walks of life and all ages for a cause that’s bigger than themselves,” Case added. “The love I’ve witnessed has been so refreshing!”
Senior Engagement is made up of teams that adopt one or two senior living communities. Project leaders choose three to four holidays a year when all volunteers make a concerted effort to shower residents with love.
“Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving seem to be the holidays that most of the teams work on. However, we did a huge Valentine’s Day project this year, and some are planning to do fall baskets,” said Case.
Senior Engagement also takes requests for special occasions, such as celebrating a senior’s milestone birthday or anniversary. But for the most part, volunteers are only needed for special occasions and aren’t required to make a daily, weekly or monthly commitment.
Currently, 23 team leaders support 28 entities, which include skilled nursing facilities, assisted living, home care agencies and rehabilitation. The number of volunteers in a team varies, with some groups supported by 12-20 members and other leaders going it alone.
“I wanted a lot of autonomy in this project, so each team takes their own approach,” said Case. “I only ask that the team leads communicate and let me know what they’re doing and encourage them to reach out if they need financial or other help.”
Dani Wright, 52, is approaching her second anniversary as team lead for Operation Senior Cheer 970, an entity of Senior Engagement Project. She and her team work with Cappella of Grand Junction to make holidays and other occasions special for residents by giving out goodies and granting items on their wish lists.
Gifts of candy and snacks, fuzzy socks, craft supplies, handmade cards and flowers are typical, but project volunteers also donate essentials like toothpaste, shampoo, tissues and Chapstick.
“We have to remember that some of these people are living in 200-300 square feet. We don’t just want to give them junk—we want to give them stuff they can use,” said Wright.
Stacey Wood’s team similarly works with staff and residents at a nursing home in Palisade.
“A lot of these residents don’t have family, so this may be the only time they get something special to let them know they’re loved,” said Wood, 56.
Especially for low-income seniors in Medicaid-funded communities, residents are just as happy to receive items as basic as pillows and socks.
“For Christmas last year, all they wanted was a set of sheets,” Wood said. “Sometimes we forget about the basics in life that are so important, like a beautifully colored comforter.”
Unfortunately, many mistakenly believe communities provide these everyday items for residents.
“A lot of people think that communities provide things like toothpaste and bedsheets when they don’t. For some Medicaid facilities, the funds only go so far,” Wood said.
Age is no barrier for volunteering, and the Senior Engagement Project includes seniors helping other seniors.
While some teams have a large, active volunteer base, others have very few. This can put team leads in a bit of a financial crunch.
Senior Engagement accepts donations of money and goods, including a small amount of funding from individuals through Mutual Aid Partners. Case and other volunteers spend their own money if funds are scarce, but she’d love to have business sponsors to support the project.
When Operation Senior Cheer receives an abundance of donations, they support FirstLight Home Care and a senior companion group. Wright’s group also helps seniors by running errands, helping them around the house and bringing them a hot meal from a local deli.
Regardless of what goodies they put together, the best part is giving them out.
“The light in their eyes and the smiles on their faces are priceless!” Wright said.
According to Case, it isn’t uncommon for volunteers’ houses and garages to be overrun with crafts or gifts, especially around the holidays.
“Last Christmas we did gifts for seniors and their care staff,” she said. “It was 2,600 gifts or something like that. It was phenomenal and so much more than I could’ve hoped for.”
Wright echoed that some of her gift deliveries have filled multiple cars to capacity.
“One of my fondest memories was a group of vases that I personally made for Valentine’s Day,” Wright said. “I’m not a crafty person but I thought they turned out so cute.”
Other organizations are more than welcome to help out and partner with the project.
“We’re always looking for parents or teachers working with small children who like to draw,” said Case. “A hand-drawn card from a child is the most coveted gift we can give. I’ve personally delivered them and seen them shine with delight!”
The Senior Engagement Project welcomes BEACON readers to join in the fun, or to reach out if they have a need. The project accepts various donated goods, including:
• Socks (gender-neutral)
• Gloves (non-bulky)
• Unscented Chapstick
• Small tubes of toothpaste
• Travel packs of tissues
• Emery boards, nail files and nail clippers
• Costume jewelry
• Notepads and pens
• Sugar-free chocolates
• Small novelty items like stuffed animals,
playing cards, puzzles, etc.
Drop off items at the Grand Junction Universalist Unitarian Church, 536 Ouray Ave., on Tuesdays between 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and note they’re for Senior Engagement Project. Case can also arrange to pick up items anywhere in the Grand Valley.
You can also make a tax-deductible donation through Mutual Aid Partners (ATTN: Senior Engagement Project), or donate via PayPal to [email protected]