Our Town: Spreading holiday cheer | December 19, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Notes & Comments - December 19, 2008

Our Town: Spreading holiday cheer

by Don Kazak

Almost two dozen children last week lined up in the front of the Christmas tree at the Palo Alto Nursing Center, on Bryant Street near downtown Palo Alto. They were there to sing carols to the patients.

The children, all 8 or younger, included girls in green and red velvet dresses. "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" were among the songs, along with a reminder that "The Little Drummer Boy" is best when sung by children.

More than 20 patients, many in wheelchairs, sat at a large table or against nearby walls, listening.

When the singing was over, the children said, together, "Merry Christmas, everyone!"

Then they went to the patients and passed out small Styrofoam Christmas trees with little decorations on them, which the kids had made.

It's part of the "Bright Lights" program sponsored by St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto that Gail Grant started six years ago.

The children make crafts with a seasonal theme and visit the nursing home each month to sing to the patients and give them small gifts.

For Christmas, the children wear small halos because, Grant said, smiling, "We're all angels."

The kids seem to like it as much as the patients, most of whom are elderly.

"I wanted to do something where the children are giving," Grant said. She also volunteers twice a week at the Opportunity Center in Palo Alto and is on the board of directors of the Downtown Streets Team.

While "Bright Lights" is sponsored by St. Marks, only a few families are church members. Mostly, kids and parents recruit each other.

"I heard about it at preschool," Becca King, whose daughters participate, said. They've been part of the effort for nine months.

"Bright Lights" has about 25 children this year and were accompanied last week by their moms, and two dads. Because it has spread word-of-mouth, with new children joining last week, there is a current concentration of parents and children from Fairmeadow Elementary School in south Palo Alto.

Some families have been part of "Bright Lights" for several years.

Chris Graf, with two daughters and a son, has been coming to the program for five years, when one of her daughters was 9 months old.

"They love coming," she said.

"I like the crafts and singing," her son, Mike, said.

Others have more philosophical reasons, in addition to teaching their children to give to others.

Mimi Funabiki has been coming to the nursing home for five years with her son and daughter.

"We want them to not be afraid of old people," she said.

After singing carols in front of the Christmas tree, the children walked through the halls of the nursing home singing "Jingle Bells" and waving at the patients in each room. Some children shyly stepped into rooms to give patients their gifts.

"Going into the rooms has had the most impact on the kids and their parents," Grant said. "Some of the patients are bedridden and I was concerned the kids would be frightened. So I tell them, 'Who do you know who can't walk and needs help feeding themselves?' 'Babies,' they said, and that seemed to really click with them."

Patients "just love it," Tina Pahler, activities director at the Palo Alto Nursing Center, said. "They just totally look forward to it."

The singing and small gifts elicit smiles from the patients.

"They're terrific and we anticipate their coming," June Kuhnley, 86, said. She's been a patient at the nursing home for four years and was born and raised in Palo Alto.

"I keep all their gifts in my room," she said. "One girl was crawling when she first came and now she's 5. They get to know us and we get to know them."

Kuhnley gave another reason why the elderly patients enjoy seeing the kids.

"Looking at them brings back memories of our children and can bring tears to your eyes," she said.

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.

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