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For Tampa Bay seniors with nothing under the Christmas tree, a wish granted

Some nursing home residents have little spare cash and no one to share the season with — until Resident’s Hope steps in.
 
Barbara Rotunda, center left, and Jean Torell-McDonald, to her right, distribute gifts at Aspire at Seminole care facility. Their organization, Resident's Hope, gave presents to more than 650 seniors this Christmas, including resident Karen Erskine, far left.
Barbara Rotunda, center left, and Jean Torell-McDonald, to her right, distribute gifts at Aspire at Seminole care facility. Their organization, Resident's Hope, gave presents to more than 650 seniors this Christmas, including resident Karen Erskine, far left. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 20, 2023|Updated Dec. 24, 2023

On a drizzly winter afternoon, two women leaned over an empty cart outside the Bay Pines Walmart, consulting a handwritten spreadsheet.

They had made a list. Checked it twice.

And organized, by category and size, the wishes of more than 650 aging strangers.

A belt, a Bible, a book of word searches — large print, please.

A radio, a razor, chocolate pudding cups and a gnome.

At seven nursing homes across Pinellas County, the women asked workers which residents had the greatest needs and who would be alone for the holidays.

“Ask them what they want most,” Barbara Rotunda had said. “It can be anything.”

A stuffed cat, socks, sheets and shampoo.

A Marine Corps T-shirt, medium; a DDD bra.

A teddy bear to hug. A baby doll to hold.

“So,” Rotunda, 63, said to her friend Jean Torell-McDonald, 79, “where should we begin?”

Jean Torell-McDonald, left, and Barbara Rotunda shop for gifts at the Walmart Supercenter on Bay Pines Boulevard in St. Petersburg. Three senior women asked for baby dolls this year.
Jean Torell-McDonald, left, and Barbara Rotunda shop for gifts at the Walmart Supercenter on Bay Pines Boulevard in St. Petersburg. Three senior women asked for baby dolls this year. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

• • •

Rotunda used to think people in care facilities had everything they needed.

She had never stepped inside a nursing home until Christmas 2017, when she told her pastor she wanted to do something to help for the holidays.

Plenty of people make sure kids have presents, he said. You should see what the seniors need.

Rotunda learned that Medicaid covers a bed and meals for most patients. But many don’t have income to buy anything more — or any way to shop for themselves.

She thought she would write a check, make a sizable donation to a group supporting senior facilities. “But there wasn’t anything like that,” she said.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Rotunda’s parents often relied on food stamps. After college, she got hired as a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch and worked her way up to vice president. Her two children never wanted for anything.

Rotunda, left, and Torell-McDonald began shopping for seniors five years ago. Last summer, they formed the nonprofit Resident's Hope gift-giving program.
Rotunda, left, and Torell-McDonald began shopping for seniors five years ago. Last summer, they formed the nonprofit Resident's Hope gift-giving program. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Then, at age 46, Rotunda was having dental surgery when a mishap led to her oxygen supply being cut. She spent a week in the hospital, months in rehab. Doctors said she might never live independently.

During a long recovery, she learned to talk and walk again. But she could never go back to work.

“I’m so blessed,” she said. “I could have spent the rest of my life in a facility.”

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• • •

Past the sunglasses and jewelry boxes, behind the backpacks, they found the underwear.

“Here!” Rotunda said, holding up a white bra from the clearance rack. “It’s padded. Only $4.98!”

“Oh, get that one,” Torell-McDonald said. “This one is $16.94.”

The women seldom shop at Walmart for themselves. They live in Bardmoor’s Bayou Club, where the median house price is $1.6 million. They prefer Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.

Rotunda had never visited a nursing home until 2017. Torell-McDonald spent four years taking care of her husband in a care facility, which cost more than $100,000 a year. Each Christmas, the women buy gifts for seniors who don't have families.
Rotunda had never visited a nursing home until 2017. Torell-McDonald spent four years taking care of her husband in a care facility, which cost more than $100,000 a year. Each Christmas, the women buy gifts for seniors who don't have families. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

But when rationing donated money, they scout sales at Ross, Big Lots, Family Dollar. Torell-McDonald even learned to stomach the chaos of Ollie’s Bargain Outlet. “We buy everything new,” she said. “But we really try to stretch every dollar.”

They have plenty of socks in the warehouse. “And I think we’re good on blankets,” Rotunda said, scratching things off the list. “We can get word searches cheaper at the Dollar Store. And we got that Bible donated from church.”

In a toy aisle, they test-drove baby dolls, cradling the life-size ones. Some came with pacifiers and bottles. One clutched a tiny unicorn.

“They’re so sweet!” Rotunda said. “I haven’t held a baby doll in years.”

Three women asked for one this year.

Torell-McDonald paused near a tree topper with a pointy hat and long white beard. “Is that a gnome?” she asked. “Oh, come sit here with me.”

She put it on the seat of her cart. “You’re just the right size to ride in someone’s wheelchair.”

They grabbed shorts for a man who lost both of his legs below the knee. Pants for a man who had been shivering in his hospital gown. A woman’s white blouse and soft brown slacks.

“All right, I think we’re good,” Torell-McDonald said, steering their haul toward the checkout.

For $118, they knocked out an entire nursing home.

• • •

They started shopping together five years ago, when Rotunda told Torell-McDonald about her plan. That Christmas, they bought gifts for 13 people at a Pinellas Park assisted living facility, Nurses Helping Hands.

They started telling friends how many more were in need.

At Orchard Cove in Clearwater, 60 of the 100 residents have no visitors or income. At Jacaranda Manor, only 30 of the 257 patients have family or a bank account.

Most people they told were moved to help, donating cash, gift cards and time. A new neighbor let them use a warehouse off Ulmerton Road to store purchases and wrap presents. A missionary friend Venmoed $1,000.

Members of the Palm Harbor Rotary Club sponsored a nursing home this year and volunteered to help wrap gifts. Each present is adorned with a cloth ribbon bow and Christmas card.
Members of the Palm Harbor Rotary Club sponsored a nursing home this year and volunteered to help wrap gifts. Each present is adorned with a cloth ribbon bow and Christmas card. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
For the last four years, Rotunda and Torell-McDonald have stacked and stored purchases in their homes. This summer, a neighbor invited them to move into his warehouse space in Largo, where they lined the walls with shelves and filled them with clothes.
For the last four years, Rotunda and Torell-McDonald have stacked and stored purchases in their homes. This summer, a neighbor invited them to move into his warehouse space in Largo, where they lined the walls with shelves and filled them with clothes. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Torell-McDonald’s hairdresser convinced her book club to sponsor a nursing home. Rotunda’s boyfriend got his Palm Harbor Rotary Club to adopt another. The Bayou Club’s Bunko group signed up for a third.

The women collect all the wants, coordinate the lists, do the shopping themselves.

Last year, they gave gifts to 400 people at four facilities.

Over the summer, they formed a nonprofit: Resident’s Hope.

• • •

Doug Palonder, left, and Sue Cramer, with the Palm Harbor Rotary Club, wrap a teddy bear this month. Blankets were the most requested item this year, but many residents also asked for something to hug.
Doug Palonder, left, and Sue Cramer, with the Palm Harbor Rotary Club, wrap a teddy bear this month. Blankets were the most requested item this year, but many residents also asked for something to hug. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

On a cool December day, about a month after the Walmart trip, the donated warehouse smelled like Christmas cookies, which were piled on plastic platters.

Bright paper rolls filled long tables, where Rotary Club members were tagging gifts: face powder and flip-flops, a nightgown and slippers.

Torell-McDonald adorned each package with her signature ribbon bow.

“If you want to wrap blankets, we have a stack here from the Dollar Tree,” Rotunda called across the room. “That was our most popular present this year.”

One of her neighbors had knitted shawls. Another stuffed 40 stockings with body wash, toothpaste and perfume. And every resident would get a handwritten card from a volunteer or a student at Madeira Beach Fundamental School.

Students at Madeira Beach Fundamental School made holiday cards for residents of local assisted living facilities. While some senior citizens asked for socks and body wash, one man said, "I'd be happy with just a Christmas card."
Students at Madeira Beach Fundamental School made holiday cards for residents of local assisted living facilities. While some senior citizens asked for socks and body wash, one man said, "I'd be happy with just a Christmas card." [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“We’ve got seven boxes so far,” said Rotunda. “Does anyone want to go with us to the facility?”

The gifts filled two Mercedes SUVs and a Tesla.

At Aspire at Seminole, four workers poured outside to help. “Oh, this is so kind!” cooed a woman wearing penguin scrubs.

They rolled carts down a long hall into the office of activities director Jo Todd. “What beautiful gift bags!” she cried, eyeing the snowman and reindeer-themed packages. “We’re going to have to save these.”

Todd carried a couple of the presents into the lobby, where two residents were waiting.

“These ladies are here to see you,” Todd told them.

Loren Landers, left, a CNA with Aspire at Seminole, and the facility’s activities director, Josephine Todd, transport gifts into the assisted living facility. Most residents will get their presents on Christmas. A couple got them early, when the Resident's Hope founders arrived.
Loren Landers, left, a CNA with Aspire at Seminole, and the facility’s activities director, Josephine Todd, transport gifts into the assisted living facility. Most residents will get their presents on Christmas. A couple got them early, when the Resident's Hope founders arrived. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Michael Balzano, left, and Karen Erskine, center, couldn't believe strangers brought them gifts at their assisted living facility.
Michael Balzano, left, and Karen Erskine, center, couldn't believe strangers brought them gifts at their assisted living facility. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Karen Erskine, 73, struggled to sit up straighter in her wheelchair. She has Parkinson’s, can’t walk or use her right arm, and has been at the home for almost a year. “Oh!” she cried, seeing Rotunda holding a shiny bag.

Michael Balzano, 68, sat in a striped chair beside her. He hasn’t been able to use his left arm since summer, when he tore his rotator cuff.

“Merry Christmas!” Rotunda said, handing each a gift.

Erskine hugged hers to her chest, beaming. “Oh, I’m so excited! Can I open it now?”

She untied the bow and pulled out a purple and blue shawl, squealing, “Ooh, it’s wonderful!” She can’t pull on a hoodie anymore, but this, she can wrap around herself. “And, oh my, it’s handmade! Someone made this for me?”

“There’s more in there,” Rotunda said.

But Erskine pushed the bag away. “I can’t open it,” she said. “I’m so excited I’m shaking.”

So Rotunda unfolded the white blouse and soft brown slacks. Erskine hadn’t asked for those. But the women thought she’d like something dressier than sweatpants for the holidays.

"I'm shaking," Karen Erskine said as she struggled to open a holiday card. After bouncing between facilities, she had landed at the Seminole home almost a year ago. What did she want for Christmas? "I just want to stay here where everyone is so kind."
"I'm shaking," Karen Erskine said as she struggled to open a holiday card. After bouncing between facilities, she had landed at the Seminole home almost a year ago. What did she want for Christmas? "I just want to stay here where everyone is so kind." [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“I just can’t believe it,” Erskine said.

Torell-McDonald nodded, grinning. “Now it’s Michael’s turn.”

His bag was packed with a moss green blanket and Champion sweatsuit. “Thank you, thank you!” he said. “These will definitely come in handy when it drops to 65 and I’m freezing.”

Everyone was smiling, taking photos, hugging — except for nurse Loren Landers, who hovered at the edge, wiping her eyes.

“This is just such a blessing,” she said softly. She knew that, since they’d arrived, neither of the residents had gotten a visit from anybody.

Torell-McDonald, left, receives a hug from Loren Landers, a CNA with Aspire at Seminole. The nurse sobbed as she watched two of her patients open donated presents. She had never seen them so happy.
Torell-McDonald, left, receives a hug from Loren Landers, a CNA with Aspire at Seminole. The nurse sobbed as she watched two of her patients open donated presents. She had never seen them so happy. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

How to help

Resident’s Hope provides gifts for people at nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. To donate or adopt a facility, call 724-809-3727, email info@residentshope.org or visit residentshope.org.