Imagine walking through a snow-covered Dickens village where beautiful decorations hang in the shop windows. Or maybe you’re in an old-fashioned Macy’s store surrounded by Christmas displays and tables piled high with wonderful assortments of gifts. There is a Men’s Department, a Ladies’ Boutique, a Tots and Teens Store, a Sweet Treats table, Gift Baskets and more! Christmas music from years gone by plays in the background.
Now imagine wandering through this magical store choosing presents for the people you love. Why is it so magical? Not only because it’s a special place filled with good cheer but also because all the presents you choose are free. Each of the lovely, brand-new gifts displayed before you is freely given and even wrapped for you.
This holiday store doesn’t exist in a Dickens novel, but it is magical. Thanks to an organization known as Wrapping Presence®, these stores come to life once a year in over 20 nursing homes and Veterans Affairs facilities throughout the area. A dedicated core of over 700 volunteers brings these stores into existence a few hours a day for the enjoyment of homebound residents. Starting the Monday after Thanksgiving and ending in mid-December, these amazing volunteers set up and decorate festive Christmas ‘shops’ inside the nursing homes. When the shopping is done a few hours later, the stores disappear again until the following year.
Although Wrapping Presence® organizes these events and provides the gifts, the wrapping paper, the cookies and all the labor, you will not see their name advertised in bright lights. In fact, the only place it appears is on the aprons worn by the smiling volunteers. The reason for this is simple. Wrapping Presence® knows the event is not about them. It’s about giving elderly residents the dignity and joy of being able to shop and choose gifts for their loved ones themselves, like they used to do.
A resident’s shopping experience starts by choosing a hand-made corsage or boutonniere. Trained volunteers then accompany their new friend through the store to ensure they find the gifts they want for everyone on their list. Once a shopper’s bag is full, more friendly volunteers will wrap the presents and fill out the tags however the resident would like them addressed and signed. The final stop is a visit with Santa who helps the shopper choose a beautiful hand-made decoration for their own door or room. With bright eyes, laughter and smiles, the residents and staff share in the spirit of this special day.
As Christ’s Home Activities Coordinator Nicoletta Everett observed, ‘It brings me to tears seeing the impact it has on our residents’. She notes that the real gift is on Christmas when the residents are so proud to offer their specially selected gifts to their visiting family members. Working with the staff at each facility, Wrapping Presence® will even provide gifts for families of residents who are in comas or who can no longer communicate. No one is forgotten.
On a snowy day in December of 1993, Marne Kies Dietterich was visiting her mother, Maggie, in a nursing home in suburban Chicago before heading back home to Pennsylvania. Her father had passed several years ago. Before leaving, she asked her mother who else might be coming to see her for Christmas. Her mother’s unexpected response was “Oh, I hope no one comes...they’re going to bring me things and it’s one more reminder that I’m now useless. I don’t get to make any decisions, I no longer have any control over my life, and I don’t feel like a complete person. I am never giving…I’m always saying thank you, thank you, thank you.”
These heart-breaking sentiments reminded Marne of words her father had spoken years ago when he was also in a nursing home. At that time, the strong man she had always known said sadly “What kind of man am I that I can’t even give a Christmas gift to my bride of 50 years?”
These words were spoken by people who had spent their whole lives giving to others, often anonymously. Marne remembers her parents just lighting up whenever they could do something for someone else.
In that moment in 1993, Marne started seeing things through her parents’ eyes. She realized her mother’s deep need to feel useful and to make decisions in her own life. To simply be able to give to someone else again. That included being able to choose for herself what Christmas presents to give to her friends and family. Marne immediately canceled her flight home. Wonderful staff members helped bundle her mother into Marne’s rental car and off they went to the local stores that her mother loved!
In the beautiful town where her parents lived for the past 50 years, the shop owners all knew Mrs. Kies. When they heard she was in the car and wasn’t able to come into the stores, they didn’t hesitate to bring their stores to her. On that cold and snowy winter day, those good people happily stood outside with their arms full of items for
Mrs. Kies to choose from. Marne remembers her mother transforming back to her old self, engaging with the merchants as she proudly made her choices.
Back at the nursing home, her mother was gently placed on a couch surrounded by Christmas decorations, the presents she had chosen and the falling snow outside the window. She sighed, closed her eyes and whispered “It’s just like it used to be”.
In 1994, Mrs. Kies was unable to leave the home, so the merchants again brought their stores to her. She was able to spend her final Christmas once more happily selecting gifts for her loved ones.
Inspired by her parent’s life-long generosity and love of giving, Marne never forgot her parents’ sentiments when she formed Wrapping Presence® in 1995. That year, she knew there had to be other nursing home residents who felt like her parents had. Seniors who would love the chance to shop for Christmas presents for their loved ones again.
So back home in Pennsylvania, Marne contacted Heritage Towers in Doylestown. She told them her idea for an in-home Christmas store for a few residents and they agreed. Using her own money, Marne decorated the shop, donated the gifts, baked the cookies and wrapped the presents chosen by 6 happy residents.
By 1999, the holiday shops had spread to 3 nursing homes and 120 residents. Marne was still doing everything on her own.
In 2000, Holly, a fellow member of the Doylestown Presbyterian Church, saw presents piled high in Marne’s car and found out about this wonderful project. She offered to help & also wrote a letter to all the church committees asking them for assistance. Within three days, 103 volunteers had signed up.
From there, the organization continued to grow. Marne calls it the ‘ripple effect’. Through word of mouth, more volunteers joined every year and more nursing homes asked for Wrapping Presence® to bring their special shops to their residents.
Local stores started donating from their inventory, fundraisers were held, and volunteers were now given specific jobs like Wrapping Buddy, Crafter, Buyer, Cookie Baker and MOG (Miscellaneous Organizational Gopher).
Last year, the organization donated and wrapped over 12,000 gifts for the loved ones of over 1,200 homebound residents.
Today Wrapping Presence® is an award-winning, year-round operation that serves over 20 nursing homes within a 40-mile radius of Doylestown. Branches also exist in New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut and central Pennsylvania. It is a 100% volunteer and donation-based organization.
Most notably, it is also 100% free to both the facilities and the residents who participate. And all donated items in the holiday shops are brand new.
As Marne states, the organization is absolutely a community effort. Starting in mid-December, volunteer buyers are already out shopping for the next year. Volunteer crafters work throughout the year to design and make door decorations, corsages, and boutonnieres for the residents. A large fund-raiser is held the second Tuesday in October at Uno’s in Doylestown. 4th graders in Bucks and Montgomery Counties decorate over 5,000 white shopping bags. And all year, 2 boxes sit in the lobby of the Doylestown Presbyterian Church to collect donations of gifts and supplies (for crafting and wrapping).
For Marne and all of the volunteers at Wrapping Presence®, giving our homebound seniors joy and dignity at holiday time is the most important gift of all.
To find out more about Wrapping Presence®, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Eileen MacAniff
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