Charity Aims to Project Holiday Cheer
Nonprofit Organizes Visitors to Hospitals
Published: Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Updated: Thursday, December 1, 2011 03:12
It's that time of year again. Lauinger Library fills up with exhausted students powering through the final pages of papers and hosting last-minute cram sessions for exams. Despite the late nights, each student treks on with visions of the collegiate equivalent of sugarplums dancing in his head — rest and relaxation at home. For thousands of D.C. residents, however, coming home for the holidays is not a possibility.
That's where The Holiday Project comes in. Founded in California in 1971 and gaining official status as a non-profit in 1980, The Holiday Project is designed to facilitate visits to hospitals and nursing homes throughout the year, particularly on holidays. In this year's press release for the National Capital chapter of The Holiday Project, President Robin Wiley states that more than 1.5 million Americans are confined to nursing homes during the holidays and that two-thirds of them have no living relatives. The Washington-area branch began activities in the mid-1970s and currently reports that more than 400 volunteers visit with 4,000 to 5,000 people throughout the year.
Street corners and supermarkets are growing crowded with Salvation Army volunteers looking for spare change to help the needy, but The Holiday Project asks for more hands-on commitment from those who want to give. Instead of tossing dimes in a red tin, you can give something particularly precious: your time.
"We live in a society where people get sprayed with mace on Black Friday [and] people might ask, ‘What are we really celebrating?'" Wiley said. "The Holiday Project gives a lot of people an answer to that question."
For Sally Anderson, a longtime volunteer and current webmaster of The Holiday Project's website, the reasons for doing this type of volunteer work were deeply personal.
During the ‘70s, Anderson's brother spent his holidays in the hospital. Anderson visited frequently, but she heard from the staff at the hospital that her brother had received some special guests during the holiday season. "On Christmas Day, he had visitors. At that time … it was not a common thing," Anderson said. "When I found out that strangers had gone and made sure he was OK on Christmas Day, I was just so impressed." When she heard about The Holiday Project in 1980, she immediately got involved. "I wanted to give someone that same feeling," Anderson said.
Anderson began by working in public relations for the chapter in New York. She took part in her first visit that December for Hanukkah at a nursing home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
"I loved the people that I met. In those days, I considered myself very shy," Anderson said. "[But] there was no sense of judgment [at the nursing home]. … I'm never sure who gets more out of it, the people I visit or me," she added."
Visiting the elderly and terminally ill does not always bring joy and comfort to the volunteers, though. "I've always been the type of person who sees the good in things," Anderson said, "[but] I could see it being very depressing."
In addition, Anderson stated, sometimes the institutions themselves were reluctant to allow volunteers to come, especially during the early years. Anderson described an experience of that nature involving a hospital for the criminally insane, where some patients were handcuffed to beds.
After sitting down with a worker at the hospital, Anderson was met with shock. "He looked at me and said, ‘Why in the world would you want to bring volunteers here on Christmas Day?'" Anderson said. "He let us bring volunteers on the condition that we [don't] interrupt his football game. During the visit he comes out and watches … he says to me, ‘I want to tell you I was wrong. … You have redefined the meaning of Christmas for me.'" Anderson describes that anecdote as one of her favorite experiences. "These are the type of things that keep you going," she said.
In recent years, visiting programs increased so much that Anderson herself proposed closing the national hierarchy in favor of only local branches. "It's not that The Holiday Project has changed but that the culture has changed," Anderson said. "We began because there was a void, and now there isn't. Maybe we had a big [impact] in changing the culture."
To fit changing needs, The Holiday Project now functions mostly as an education-based program and facilitator for groups to organize their own volunteering, according to Anderson. In order to do this, The Holiday Project severed legal responsibility to local chapters and ceased record-keeping, which has caused some problems getting grants. However, Anderson felt the change was worth the difficult transition.
Wiley found that over her time with The Holiday Project, involvement waxed and waned. "People do get out and volunteer during the holiday season, but statistics about residents in nursing homes are alarming," Wiley said.
Anderson reported that many high school students participate in The Holiday Project, although she has not seen many college students in the D.C. area. "A lot of students go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas," Anderson said.