Beaver County older adults share how Surprises for Shut-ins program brings holiday blessings to their doorsteps

“I was absolutely shocked . . . in a good way!” This is how Inger Niklasson of Beaver responded upon receiving her bag of goodies from the Surprises for Shut-ins program. “When I opened the bag, I couldn’t believe all the items inside,” she recalls. “Everything in the bag was something I could really use. The gifts and the friendly visit brightened my holiday.”

The first thing that Julia Majerchik of Baden did upon receiving her goodie bag was enjoy the Anderson’s candy bar. “I love chocolate and am so thankful to receive a very, very nice gift bag each year,” she comments. “I use each item, especially the blanket when I’m watching television.”

Like the above two Beaver County residents, the Surprises of Shut-ins program has been a tremendous blessing for those ages 60 and older who are homebound—and possibly alone—during the holiday season. This annual tradition has been spreading holiday cheer to about 400 recipients each year since 1987 through the Beaver County Office on Aging (BCOA).

The idea behind the program is simple yet so important: It provides a bag of about eight gifts and a friendly visit during the holiday season. The BCOA casework staff identifies shut-ins who need some special caring and a kindness during the holidays.

“This program makes the holiday feel a little more like that ‘special time of year’ for older adults in our community who are experiencing illness or loneliness,” says Angela Gentile of BCOA, project chairman since the inception of the program. “The seniors really value these visits, as many of them just have contact with their caseworker and direct care workers. Having a volunteer show up at their door really brings a smile to the recipient’s face and a warm feeling in their heart.”

Angela shares a bit about the program over the years: “It started as Surprizes for Shut-ins, a word play that inferred the recipients would be getting a prize.  After a few years, I gave up on using the Z because newspaper editors and others kept changing it to the correct spelling.” During the first year of the program, recipients received about three gifts, and the wrapped gifts were all taped together. “Currently, people received at least eight wrapped gifts. As we started using volunteers, they requested that the gifts be placed in gift bags.”  

During the first year of the program, one Home Delivered Meals provider agreed to help deliver 10 gifts to people who were getting the BCOA-funded meals; the rest of the gifts were delivered by BCOA staff. “When staff got back from delivering, we all had wonderful stories about how excited the older adults were with the visit, even more than the gifts,” Angela remembers. “We saw their need to talk, and we realized we had to keep running this program. In the beginning years, we gave gifts to the most isolated or those with little to no family in the area.  In 2001, we started giving gifts to all consumers served through in-home services of BCOA.”
“I think it’s amazing what the Office on Aging does for these people through the Surprises for Shut-ins program,” says Elizabeth Little of Beaver Falls. “Like me, some of them are by themselves.  Some get nothing during the holidays. I’ve almost cried sometimes when receiving my gift. The Office on Aging has done so much for me. I’m so thankful.” 

How you can help make the holiday special for a local shut-in
Are you touched by this program’s mission but don’t have time during the busy month ahead to volunteer? No problem; there are a number of ways in which you can contribute.

Donate new items with practical uses, either through your local senior center, community or church groups, or in person at the BCOA offices, located in the Beaver County Human Services Building, 1020 Eighth Avenue, Beaver Falls, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, except holidays.
Start a donation drive at your place of work and support the program in lieu of exchanging co-worker gifts.

Decide as a family to make donations to the program instead of gifting each other with the usual gift cards, ties and socks, fruit baskets and such.

Now through Friday, December 2, BCOA will be accepting donations. Wrapped gifts are appreciated but it is not necessary to wrap them. If you’d like to wrap your gifts, put a sticky note or gift tag on each one stating the contents. To get you thinking of appropriate items, here’s a few examples: lovely soaps and body wash, tissue boxes, warm socks and slippers, soothing body lotion, shampoo, shaving razors and shaving cream, fragrances, knick knacks, picture frames, lap robes, note pads and pens, greeting cards and stamps, and playing cards and board games.

Cash donations are accepted to cover the cost of giftwrap. Checks should be made payable to Angela Gentile; a receipt will be issued.

For more details about Surprises for Shut-ins, call Angela Gentile at (724) 847-2262 or (888) 548-2262.

By Gina Mazza
For Beaver County Senior News
Photo by Chuck LeClaire/Beaver County Senior News