Holiday Helpers Deliver Christmas Cheer

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Phyllis Downe, Pam Helfrey, and Jackie Hopkins.
Phyllis Downe, Pam Helfrey, and Jackie Hopkins.
Phyllis Downe, Pam Helfrey, and Jackie Hopkins.

Submitted by:
Walt Pickut & Julia Eppehimer

Whether standing outside in the blustery cold, singing, ringing a bell (or even blowing a trumpet), brightening patients’ days with flowers, or making new friends serving lunch to the unemployed or homeless, the consensus seems clear. The greatest reward of volunteering in the holiday season is meeting the people whose lives are touched.

This year, holiday volunteers across the nation will give up $165 billion worth of their time in community service and charitable fundraising, according to a recent survey. Combined with charitable giving, Americans will donate nearly a half trillion dollars to worthy causes in the spirit of the season.

Any downtown shopping trip or mall-stroll throughout the Greater Jamestown region illustrates again the warmth of people’s generosity and the spirit of neighbors helping neighbors.
A random sampling of holiday season volunteers across the region reveals the many ways people feel rewarded for their work. Some are inspired, others find opportunities to share their own blessings, and many enjoy working with great teams, making new friends and enriching their community. Turn to the Around Town picture page on the back cover of this week’s Gazette and meet a few of the volunteers making a difference around the community this year.

They inspire me, say some.

“I like serving on the food serving line because of the people I meet,” Bob Keefe said of serving at the St. Susan Center. Fellow volunteer, Nancy Lawson added, “As we interact with them, they seem to warm up to us,”

“They’ll say ‘have a good day’ even before we say it to them,” she said. “It makes me feel good, like I’m having an impact on people.”

This holiday season there are more than 300 homeless families in the region, almost half of which have dependent children, according to the Chautauqua County Department of Health and Human Services. Yet, volunteers serving food, distributing warm clothing and helping Santa deliver presents say they receive far more than they give.

Pat Portale has made an effort for about 15 years to stay involved in volunteer programs. She worked her morning shift at the Home Depot, one day last week, before making her way to the Salvation Army to help with the Angel Tree ministry.
“I don’t know how they survive,” Portale said, describing the struggles she has seen people face. But no matter how hard it is, they do not give up. “They inspire me.” Portale is able to laugh and joke with the people she meets, but she also finds the courage to never give up in her own life because of how much she has seen others overcome.

Volunteers create memories.

Community volunteers with Hospice Chautauqua filled a special role for this year’s holiday season. The Light a Life Memorial is a tribute to lost friends and loved ones. During a recent special event the blue spruce trees in front of the Hospice offices on Fairmount Avenue in Jamestown were decorated by the volunteers. Red bows, each one hung in gratitude for a donation, obtained alone or with a special hand crafted ornament, were hung in the memory of a loved one.

“Our volunteers brought a special gift of the heart to this holiday memorial project,” said Mary Jo Bradish, “just as they do all year long.” Delivering joy and comfort at Christmas time in difficult circumstances carries a special blessing for the Hospice volunteers as well as for the people they serve.

I think you’re a blessing, others say.

Identical smiling faces greet people as they walk into the WCA hospital on Sundays and Wednesdays. Gloria Raymond and her twin sister Glenda Lyon have been volunteering as hospital receptionists for more than 14 years.

Christmas babies and holiday ‘deliveries’ are a special treat for the retired twin sisters. Their favorite part of the job is when they deliver flowers to a new mother. “We enjoy going into maternity, seeing the little babies,” Gloria smiled, adding to the holiday cheer.

Janice Barrelle always knew that she wanted to volunteer her time once she retired. The holiday season has given her special opportunities this year.
“I do it… to give back to the community,” she said, describing her work at her church, the Red Cross, and the hospital gift shop. “It leaves a good feeling, knowing that you helped.”

Barrelle enjoys meeting the people and sharing a conversation and a smile with those who rush in to finish their Christmas shopping.

“I think you’re a blessing,” one Christmas gift shopper called back with a smile as she walked out the door.

Good team work is enjoyed by all.

At Jamestown’s Gateway Center, home of Helping Hands and St. Susan Center, teams of volunteers come every day to serve people who need a hot meal.

“I just enjoy being with people,” Judy Dailey said about volunteering at St. Susan Center. “We get to know each other,” Bob Keefe added. “Good team work is a special gift for volunteers.”

“Christmas can be difficult for some people who work at Helping Hands,” said Rev. Amy Rohler, executive director. Some of them have little more than the people we serve. Our community volunteers help them know they are valued members of our team”
“I’ll stay until I can’t do it anymore,” volunteer Nancy Lawson said.

Sharing gifts with the whole community.

In rain or snow or sleet or hail, they stand outside beside that little red pail, the one everyone recognizes so quickly as their invitation to give to people less fortunate.

Whether standing inside a store entrance way or enjoying the brisk and bracing wintry weather, many people gladly give their time ringing the bells. Some even heighten the festive spirit by singing or even playing a trumpet.

“I want to support my local Salvation Army,” Karen Pennington said as she sat outside Wal-Mart with her beautiful trumpet. “I think they do very good work for our community.”

Most people ring bells beside the kettle, maybe some recalling Jimmy Stewart in the traditional “It’s a Wonderful Life”, trying to help angels earn their wings, or at least to remind shoppers to donate their extra change. But there is even more to it when Karen’s on duty.

The heavenly sounds of her trumpet can be heard greeting shoppers with friendly sounds of the season as Karen plays her way through her Christmas carol song book.
Pennington never shows up without her trumpet. “I like it better than the bells,” she says.

Christmas donations help the Salvation Army fund their programs year round, but at Christmas time, there is even more going on.

The Salvation Army gym looks a lot like Santa’s workshop. More than 3,300 toys await the children receiving them for Christmas through the Angel Tree Program.
“It’s truly a community effort,” Captain Kim Merchant said of the Salvation Army’s volunteer program. She described the Salvation Army as the “hub” of many opportunities for people to give back to the community.

Churches, companies and organizations all participate, but the general public also has an opportunity to be a part of the season of giving. Individuals are encouraged to bring in presents for the children on the Angel Trees. Each child under 12 is given 3 presents, and the families also receive food for their Christmas dinner.

“Christmas is a magical time of year,” Merchant said. ”People just want to be a part of something to share that feeling…to spread Christmas cheer.”

It’s really all year long.

Volunteering time, donating toys, or sharing smiles appear to help everyone get in the Christmas spirit and share the joy that they have, if the Jamestown Gazette’s informal survey of hearty holiday volunteers is any indication.

But all year long people pause in their days to serve soup or deliver flowers, gaining from the people they meet even more than they could ever give.
To give, it is said, is more blessed than to receive.

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Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.