BROOKSVILLE — Often, it's the simplest gesture that brings the biggest smile. Just ask Betty Mullins, who clutched a new pink jacket that had been delivered to her moments before, wrapped in bright red paper with a green bow.
"I just love it so much," said Mullins, 79, as she gently wiped a tear from her cheek. "I am so thankful for what these people have given us."
Mullins was one of about 80 residents at Heron Pointe Health and Rehabilitation who attended the small party last week with about two dozen residents who sat around tables eager to receive gifts.
The gifts were courtesy of a holiday outreach program called Be a Santa for a Senior that is sponsored annually by Home Instead Senior Care, a national adult home care company. In the past, the program in Hernando County was sponsored by Home Instead's affiliate in Wesley Chapel. But with the opening last year of a Spring Hill office, branch manager Maureen Riser offered to coordinate this year's effort.
"The outpouring of generosity has been tremendous," Riser said. "I think it shows how compassionate our community is toward seniors and that they're not being forgotten during the holidays."
Riser said that she was able to garner more than $3,000 from fundraisers, including a benefit at Rookies Sports Bar & Grill, organized by the Republican Party of Hernando County, which featured local VIPs working as the serving staff. The donations, plus items collected from local merchants, enabled her to provide more than 1,200 gifts.
An army of 50 volunteers wrapped and delivered them to about 400 seniors living in nursing homes or private residences whose names were provided by local assisted living facilities, churches and programs such as Mid-Florida Community Services and Meals on Wheels.
The gifts were far from extravagant. In fact, Riser said most of the requests she received were for small items such as towels, razors, house slippers and robes, things that many seniors living in assisted facilities are unable to provide for themselves.
"Many of these people have no family and very little income, so even basic necessities are things they've often had to go without," Riser said. "Seeing their faces light up when they know someone has thought about them is a special joy."
Alison Lakin, who along with her husband, Phil Lakin, a sergeant with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, has participated in Be a Santa for a Senior for the past three years, said that equally important to the gift giving was the opportunity for volunteers to spend time with the recipients.
Lakin and her husband spent much of their time Thursday delivering gifts to bed-bound patients unable to make it to the party.
"It feels wonderful to give back to the community and to fulfill the Christmas wishes of someone who might not get anything else," she said. "For a lot of them, we're their only visitors during the entire holiday."
Riser said she hopes to expand the program over time, and attract more local companies as sponsors.
"I know there are people and businesses out there that would love to be part of what we do,' she said. "There is such a huge need out there these days. I don't believe there is any reason for someone to go through Christmas feeling like no one cares about them."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.