Smiles from Santa: Brainerd-area seniors receive a Christmas surprise


BRAINERD, Minn.—A chorus of knocks and doorbells across the Brainerd lakes area Tuesday, Dec. 19, announcing the arrival of some unexpected company and Christmas cheer.

When Ralph Fredrick Henkensiefken opened the front door of his Buffalo Hills-area home, he was greeted by Santa Claus and two of his elves.

"Somebody thought you were a good boy and deserved a Christmas present," volunteer Becky Stock, wearing a red and green hat adorned with bells, told the 85-year-old. Behind Stock, Darryl Hale held a red plastic basket addressed to Henkensiefken, the contents of which were wrapped in light blue snowflake-covered paper and topped with a white bow.

Henkensiefken's home was the second stop for Stock, Hale and Santa suit-wearing Ted Anderson, who were traversing the city delivering packages to seniors' homes as part of the Be a Santa to a Senior program. Senior citizens are among the most vulnerable to loneliness during the Christmas season—sometimes homebound, isolated and with no families to visit. The program seeks to spread holiday cheer to those in need, by encouraging community members to anonymously purchase gifts to be delivered to the seniors' homes.

Henkensiefken invited the group into his home and accepted an offer to sit on Santa's lap.

"I want a brand new Cadillac," he said with a laugh.

Henkensiefken was full of one-liners, regaling the volunteers with tales of his struggles with a 26-letter name, explanations for his age and weight and claims of shyness. He said he expected perhaps a Christmas card from Home Instead Senior Care when they called to assure he'd be home Tuesday morning. His wife Lorene received care from the organization leading the gifts for seniors effort.

Henkensiefken said the couple moved to Brainerd nine years earlier to be closer to his son and grandchildren. But circumstances are different now.

"They've all moved away and the grandkids have all moved away," he said. "My wife is in a nursing home. So I'm kind of alone here now, but I'm getting adjusted to it."

After opening his gift to find a blanket and an assortment of treats—including crackers, popcorn and cookies—Henkensiefken said he planned to share them with Lorene at Harmony House.

"I'm just astonished," he said. "Thank you kindly, ever so much."

Back in Stock's car, the group laughed together as they recalled Henkensiefken's jokes.

"Ralph was fun," Hale said. "That's why I do it."

Hale joined Stock, a seven-year veteran of the program, as a Be a Santa to a Senior volunteer three years ago. This year was Anderson's first, although he's an experienced St. Nick. Stock said she participates because it's gratifying to see the gifts bring smiles to people's faces.

"I think seniors get kind of forgotten this time of year," Stock said. "Everybody thinks about kids and things like that, but there's a lot of seniors out there by themselves who don't have people to celebrate Christmas with and don't have people buying them gifts. Don't have just any family to be around."

One year, Stock delivered a pair of fuzzy socks to a nearly blind woman living in a nursing home. The woman was so overjoyed to receive her gift of socks, Stock was moved to hug her.

"She was crying because she was so excited over these fuzzy socks. She told me she didn't have any family, she just had a best friend in the nursing home and her best friend had just passed away. She was saying, 'I can't even tell you how thankful I am for you,'" Stock said.

Nearly 400 seniors in Brainerd, Baxter and surrounding areas received gifts Tuesday. Deb Cranny, executive director of the Brainerd location of Home Instead Senior Care, works with organizations in the area to develop a list of deserving seniors who have no idea they're set to receive a gift from a secret Santa. These include service groups, churches, social workers, assisted living facilities and others who work with seniors.

"What we do is solicit in the community for names of seniors that may not have any company over the holiday season, may not get a gift. (They're) very deserving, not necessarily only financially but also socially," Cranny said.

The next stop for Stock's merry carload was a house just down the street from Henkensiefken, where sisters Rose Robison and Bunny Rieber call home. Robison was excited to offer the group a tour, but first opened the wooden picnic basket decorated with a large red and buffalo check ribbon.

"Oh, look at that, isn't that sweet? Wow, she'll just love those," the 92-year-old Robison said as she held a bag of Hershey's Kisses. Although the package was addressed to both her and her 90-year-old sister, Rieber was not home to accept the Christmas gift.

"Yesterday, she was no good at all. No. ... They thought they were going to get her out of the hospital, but no, I don't think so," Robison said. "I'm not going to cry. But I think this is great."

Robison, who once volunteered as a foster grandparent in classrooms at Riverside Elementary School and participated in the color guard, beamed with pride as she walked the guests through her two-bedroom, two-bathroom home. She took care to point out antique furniture passed down from her parents and told of inviting her sister to live with her once both women were widowed.

Upon departing Robison's home, the volunteers set their course for Home Instead Senior Care for another load of gifts.

"The smiles make it all worth every bit of it," Hale said. "It's one small little thing you can do."