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Be a Santa to a Senior

Crystal Padilla of Willmar checks out the gift tags on the gift tree displayed inside the front entrance of the Walgreens store in Willmar. The Be a Santa to a Senior tree is part of a nationwide program which delivers, wraps and distributes gifts to isolated or lonely seniors who might not otherwise receive a gift at Christmastime. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Sheri Nordmeyer knocked on the front door of an elderly man's home last Christmas season with an anonymous Christmas gift in hand.

The elderly homeowner opened the door. Nordmeyer handed the gift to the surprised homeowner, explaining the gift was from an anonymous donor. The recipient thanked Nordmeyer: it would be the only Christmas gift he would be receiving that year.

The thankful recipient was one of more than 60 seniors in the area to receive a hand-delivered gift from volunteers like Nordmeyer last Christmas as part of "Be a Santa to a Senior" -- a nationwide program which delivers, wraps and distributes gifts to isolated or lonely seniors who might not otherwise receive a gift at Christmastime.

The program, sponsored by Home Instead Senior Care, operates similarly to the Salvation Army's Angel Tree Program with one obvious exception: gifts are tailored to seniors. Last Christmas was the program's pilot season in the area, though the program has delivered more than 1.2 million gifts to seniors for the past six years.

"It's a unique program in that it caters specifically to seniors," said Margaret Kotula, community service representative with Home Instead Senior Care's Willmar and St. Cloud office. "It's about qualify of life and outreach in the community."

The local community certainly responded to the need last year: according to Kotula, all 60 gifts tags placed on the "Be a Santa to a Senior" tree located at Walgreen's in Willmar were filled.

"Gift tags were snatched off the tree last year," said Sheri Nordmeyer, program director at Willmar Community Senior Network. "This is an indication that the community wants to help -- they just don't know how."

Kotula worked closely with Nordmeyer and the Willmar Community Senior Network last year to identify seniors who may appreciate a gift -- specifically those without family living in the area. This year Kotula cast a larger net, asking both nonprofits and local facilities for names of seniors who may not otherwise receive a gift.

Gift tags were created again this year for more than 60 local seniors, and since Nov. 9 the tags have been hanging on a tree just inside the entrance to Walgreen's in Willmar. Items requested include large-print word find books, elastic waistband pants and diabetic candy -- not exactly items flying off the shelves at 4 a.m. on Black Friday.

"It's really not about the gift," Nordmeyer said." It's about the acknowledgment and the contact."

Gifts have since been collected at the Walgreen's location, but Kotula said volunteers are still needed to wrap gifts on Thursday, from 9 a.m. until noon at Independence Place in Willmar. Kotula said once the gifts are wrapped, volunteers can begin delivering gifts to the homes. Volunteers with questions can call Home Instead Senior Care at 320-222-2273.