Shannon Stewart from Bridgewater, N.S., grew up watching her mother, Barb Stewart, give back to her community her entire life, especially around Christmas when she would help the less fortunate.
When Barb passed away four years ago, her daughter wanted to keep her legacy alive. So she launched a Facebook group, Santas for South Shore Seniors, where community members sign up to buy a Christmas present for a senior in the community.
The initiative had a cascading effect. Stewart's group in the South Shore inspired people to launch a Santas for Seniors in Queen's County and Annapolis Valley. And it all started with Santas for Seniors in Halifax, launched more than a decade ago.
The goal is simple: to bring joy to seniors who may be lonely and feel forgotten during the holiday season. And the response has been a memorable Christmas season for over a thousand seniors across the province.
Stewart gets a list of seniors from nursing homes, organizations and community members. She posts information about the senior's age and interests, and people or businesses sign up to buy a gift for them.
"The numbers keep growing, but the generosity keeps growing. Like the gifts keep getting bigger. We were blown away by some of the things that were coming in," said Shannon.
"They're the most vulnerable besides children, you know, it's seniors and children."
The South Shore began with 200 participants. This year it was 426. The Halifax group gave gifts to 1,200 seniors. Kendra Shot launched the Santas for Seniors group in Queens County four years ago. She says many community members are buying groceries or gift cards for seniors this year as inflation drives up everyday expenses.
Stewart said nursing homes sometimes run out of personal hygiene items which are the top priority for seniors. This year, a woman asked for an oscillating electric heater because she ran out of oil for her other heater. Or gift givers find a present associated with a person's hobby, like a bird calendar for someone who loves birds.
Reaction from seniors
This year, a director of a nursing home in the South Shore dressed as Santa Claus to hand out the gifts to seniors seated in a room.
"It got overwhelming with tears," said Shannon. "Everyone was crying, including the staff, because they were just overwhelmed with happiness."
Janice Costigan volunteers to deliver gifts to seniors every year. She said the seniors usually gather around the front doors of the nursing homes when they know someone is coming for them.
She once sat down to chat with a senior, and when she gave him a gift, he began to cry.
"He couldn't believe someone had adopted him that didn't know who he was, that someone in the community cared enough to say Merry Christmas and we have something special for you and you're loved and thought of during Christmas," said Costigan.
Seniors often overlooked
Robyn Carruthers — who started Santas for Seniors in Halifax — says it brings her immense joy to hear about similar groups launching in other communities. She said initiatives like this are important because there aren't many organizations that cater to seniors.
"All you have to do is pick up the phone, and it starts with one phone call to one nursing home or one senior group, and it just grows from there," said Carruthers.
She said seniors often ask for necessities like grocery gift cards, towels or food.
"They're not asking for the moon, right? It's just really basic things ... the lists are heartbreaking themselves," said Carruthers.
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