During the holiday season, several organizations work to ensure the needs and wants of local children are met. Few, however, ensure nursing home patients and homebound residents have a merry Christmas.
Athens Police Sgt. Katrina Flanagan will be Santa Claus, or at least an elf, to at least 200 nursing home residents on Christmas Eve. Since September, she has collected donations to purchase items that will be put into gift bags for recipients.
Each bag includes a hairbrush, pair of socks, playing cards, scented or unscented lotions, a Bible, tissues and large-print word-find or crossword puzzle books. They also include a Christmas card, some of which are homemade by local children and patients of the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama.
Flanagan works with nursing home staff to make sure gift bags meet the needs of the patients. She tries, however, to make sure the bags are as uniform as possible. It costs about $15 to cover the cost of the bags.
Last year was Flanagan's first attempt at the project. Her initial goal was 45 bags, but she ended up making 125. She and her kids delivered the bags to two nursing homes on Christmas Eve morning. Her goal this year is 200 bags, and as of Wednesday, she was getting close.
“I have a goal, but no limit,” she said with a laugh. “I would love to be able to do every nursing home in Limestone County. After the nursing homes, I'd like to (deliver) to the homebound.”
Flanagan's efforts to bring joy to others at Christmas is being supported by her fellow officers and Chief Floyd Johnson. Each year, officers ride through underserved parts of the city and distribute toys to children they see playing outdoors.
Flanagan's cause, however, is a personal one and one she said is “close to her heart.”
“They get forgotten, and people don't visit,” she said. “You can go in (on Christmas Eve) and it's empty and just kind of sad.”
She got the idea after reading about how a group adopted grandparents for Christmas and gave them socks. Feeling socks weren't enough, she began talking to nursing home employees to find out the specific needs of the residents. Hair brushes and ways to stay active topped the list.
She and her children were thrilled last year with the reception they received. It cheered up the residents, who came to the doorways and out into the hallways to greet the Flanagans.
“(My kids) were wary at first, but you should have seen the looks on their faces,” she said. “They said, 'Let's do this again!'”
She plans to distribute the bags on Christmas Eve morning again this year. The bags are fixed up with colored tissue paper and ribbons, just like a regular Christmas present.
“We dress Christmasy and make sure we say 'Merry Christmas,'” Flanagan said.
Those who want to sponsor a gift should visit Gifts for the Elderly on Facebook or email Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org. She offers a number of ways people can contribute, including PayPal. Monetary donations can also be dropped off at the Athens Police Department at 951 E. Hobbs St.
“All the money taken goes straight into the bags. I make no money off this at all,” she said. “I'm not a nonprofit; I'm just one person doing it. Those who sponsors gifts are the ones responsible, because they're taking money out of their own pockets at Christmas to buy gifts for strangers.”