The giving tree: Simple gifts can fulfill big needs for local seniors and disabled adults

Playing Santa’s elves: The Buncombe County Department of Social Services joins forces with community partners to give elderly and disabled adults a Christmas they might not have otherwise. Meals on Wheels volunteers Monica Matthews and Barbara Fry dress up as elves to make their special deliveries for the Senior Wish Tree project. Photo courtesy of local Meals on Wheels Development Director Terri Bowman

For many seniors and adults with disabilities in Buncombe County, visions of sugarplums do not dance in their heads during the holiday season. They’re dreaming of warm clothes, food and the reassurance that they are not forgotten. According to Roxann Sizemore, supervisor of the Buncombe County Adult Protective Services Department, that's the mission of the Buncombe County Senior Wish Tree project, and it goes beyond wish lists.

"We really wanted it to be not so much about the present, but about somebody recognizing you at the holidays," she says. "We wanted it to be for those folks who didn't have that family support around the holidays."

Modeled after the Salvation Army Angel Trees, the local project began 15 years ago. When working with older and disabled adults, Sizemore says, it's a combined effort between DSS and various community partners, including the Council on Aging of Buncombe County, Meals on Wheels of Asheville and Buncombe County and home-health providers.

"The referrals come from these community agencies, and it's for those folks who they work with [and] know don't have that family support — [those who’ll] be alone at Christmas, basically," Sizemore says.

However, in order to not be inundated with thousands of names, each agency is limited to 20 referrals. This year, there were 129 in total. Sizemore estimates that this number fluctuates from year to year, but not by much.

"There are a lot of folks in need around the holidays," she says.

This need is something that Meals on Wheels Social Services Director Becky Blalock understands. Every year, MOW volunteers fill nearly 500 shoe boxes with necessities like shampoo, toiletries and holiday goodies for its Santas For Seniors program. However, Blalock says there is something that makes the Senior Wish Tree a little more special.

"It is so important because it's not just like we packed gift bags or gift boxes and a bit of candy,” she says. “This is specific to what somebody wants. They might still get something but, without the Senior Wish Tree, they wouldn't have anybody to ask them about what they really wanted.”

Pulling out what she calls her “Christmas folder,” Blalock says when she asks seniors what they want for the holidays,  they rarely ask for much and often say someone needs it more. Opening the folder, she begins to read some of their requests aloud.

“A 90-year-old lady asks for nail clippers, a calendar, an address book, lip balm and a magnetic notepad. A 93-year-old lady asks for individually wrapped fried apple pies, crackers and soup,” she says. After a minute she says, “It's so simple yet it is a huge thing to them.”

Sizemore says some of the most commonly requested items include slippers, grocery-store gift cards and food.

“It's so humbling, the requests they make, because the requests are so small,” Sizemore says.

For Blalock, fulfilling these small requests makes a big difference, and there are some deliveries she says she will never forget.

“I remember this one man who lived in a shed behind his brother's house. It was a nice shed, but still a shed, and he wanted some shoes. That's all he wanted, but they had to be Velcro because of a paralyzed arm,” she recalls. “But someone got them, and he couldn't have been happier.”

Though all of the 129 seniors in the 2012 program have been sponsored and will receive their gifts next week, Blalock looks forward to this year's delivery by looking back.

“I got a letter from a man who I don't think had any children, his brother had died and he had no living relatives. He said that if we had not done the gift tree, that he would not have had a Christmas,” she says. “This is personal. This is their Christmas.”

Send your health-and-wellness news and tips to Caitlin Byrd at cbyrd@mountainx.com or mxhealth@mountainx.com, or call 251-1333, ext. 140.

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