Holiday helpers | November 30, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- November 30, 2012

Holiday helpers

Community members share their stories of volunteering during the holiday season

People across the Peninsula are celebrating the holiday season by giving gifts that trump those you might find at a department store. These are gifts of time and generosity, of good will and inspiration. For many, volunteering during the holiday season has become a tradition that can unite families and inspire others.

Some help organize uplifting holiday exhibits and events, such as the annual Christmas Creche Exhibit in Palo Alto or the Bethlehem A.D. event in Redwood City, while others plan community food or toy drives. One fourth-grade student from East Palo Alto sent a hand-written letter praising her grandmother's volunteering — "I am proud to be her granddaughter," she wrote.

Here are first-person accounts from people in the community about how they help celebrate the holidays by volunteering to help others.

Twelve days of service

Our family celebrates Christmas, and as part of our celebration we have two different advent calendars to count down the days to Dec. 25.

One of the calendars has a small box for each day where I place a square of paper with a typed message inside. I had initially written down fun activities and traditions for us to do as a family, such as walking down Christmas Tree Lane and decorating cookies.

But I felt like I also wanted to impart to my three children an awareness of the true spirit of selfless service that is a key part of our Christian faith. I decided to start the "Twelve Days of Christmas," where at least 12 of the papers in our advent calendar would be acts of service that we would perform together, and we have done this for the past seven years.

Some activities we do anonymously, so the kids can recognize that true service has no desire for thanks or recognition. And as each year has passed, I take it as a personal challenge to find even more activities that blend service and fun, so that the kids learn that the two can go hand in hand. Here are some of our favorite activities over the years:

* "Adopt" a family in need by buying gifts and/or food items and leaving the items anonymously at their doorstep

* Look at Heifer International online and choose a "share" of an animal to donate to a family in need

* Go to San Francisco on Christmas Eve with a handful of Subway gift cards to give to homeless people we see as we walk through the city

* Take toy and food donations to our favorite local performance of "The Christmas Carol," "The Gift" at Notre Dame de Namur College

* Participate in our school's "Working Wonders" toy drive supporting InnVision Shelter Network, and help sort the toys at their Toy Shoppe

* Go caroling with friends to neighbors who are elderly or alone

* Write thank you letters to teachers both at school and church

* Hold a free babysitting session at our home for moms of young children so they can go holiday shopping kid-free

I feel like my kids, now ages 7, 9 and 12, have really grown to appreciate performing these acts of service for others, and it has become a cherished part of celebrating the Christmas season for us.

Charities and the 'Cousin Exchange'

I am from a family of nine siblings. As we have had our children (now there are 21 grandchildren ages 6-30s) we wanted to come up with a meaningful way for cousins to exchange gifts with each other that minimized the financial burden on their parents, reduced waste (who needs all the plastic of cheap kid-to-kid gifts?), and realized the true meaning of the holidays across our family's religions (Christian, Jewish and Muslim).

The result has become a favorite family tradition formally known as the Cousin Exchange.

In early December, all cousins are asked if they want to participate in the annual Cousin Exchange and what issue/organization they want to support this year. Names are put in a hat and an aunt picks and makes assignments (this is kept secret until Christmas Day). Each cousin makes a $25 gift to the chosen charity/cause (sometimes they have to search for the right charity) of the assigned cousin and prepares a card for Christmas Day.

When our extended family gathers that afternoon, the cousins get in a circle and one by one gift their cousin, presenting the card and talking about the cousin's charity and the needs it addresses. The gifted cousin gets to add comments about why they chose that cause or organization.

Over the years we have learned much about the next generation of Swezeys — sometimes certain charities are chosen based on cuddly animals in trouble around the world, friends' illnesses or support for aging grandparents; sometimes we learn new forays into high school or college activism; always we have learned the true meaning of the holidays.

Singing for seniors

Our Palo Alto Girl Scout Troop, 60893, has a favorite holiday tradition, singing to seniors at the Sunrise Assisted Living Center on El Camino Real in Palo Alto.

We sing traditional carols and make conversation with them. Some of the people there have some memory difficulties, but they always remember "Jingle Bells!" The best part about going is seeing all the happy faces. We started going when we were Brownies, in first grade at El Carmelo Elementary School, and now we are seventh-graders at JLS and Castilleja.

To be honest, it can sometimes feel sad because it can be hard to see someone struggling with remembering things, but that bittersweet feeling never stops us from going. For some of the seniors, they live in the moment, because that's what they have, the moment, instead of lots of memories.

We are privileged to get to experience the moment with them. We want to do what we can to make the moment happy. We want them to enjoy themselves and the holidays, and we want them to know that they are cared for and surrounded by love.

Roadrunners' food drive

The Roadrunners Sports Club started a holiday tradition of having a food drive for those in the East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park areas. For the past five years, the players, coaches and parents have all come together to collect, create and distribute food to those in need. This year Roadrunners collected enough food to feed over 30 individuals.

Raymond Fowler, a 13-year-old basketball player, says: "I really enjoy volunteering during the holiday season. It's a time to share with those who are less fortunate. It is also a time to give back to my community in a positive way by helping others. It is important for me to volunteer so I can touch and make a difference in the lives of other people."

Collaborating on Creche

Twenty-five years ago I started helping with the Christmas Creche Exhibit ( at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Palo Alto. In the beginning years I was a hostess for a few hours on one day — like being a docent in a museum.

Then for eight years I was in charge of all the physical facilities set-up. That was a huge job — making sure we had all the tables, lights and other infrastructure so the decorators can work their magic, the children have their space for nativity crafts and dress-ups, and nothing falls over and gets broken. After that I spent a few years doing the office and computer support.

We have a database of about 2,000 nativity sets to choose from and show 400+ each year. Each displayed set has a small card printed with information about the material, country of origin, artist, etc.

This year I've "retired" and am back to being a hostess again. I'll also be ringing with the Bell Choir for the concerts on one evening. It's an amazing free community service that is totally done by volunteers to share with about 12,000 visitors in five days what Christmas is about — love and joy and music and friends remembering the birth of Jesus Christ.

Lytton liveliness

Since 1986 our family has volunteered on Christmas morning at Lytton Gardens Health Care Center. At the time about 500 volunteers of the Mid-peninsula chapter of the Holiday Project ( served over 4,000 Peninsula residents.

I co-led the team with Nellie Bartello, my mother, a resident of Lytton Gardens for 25 years. She was a volunteer assistant to the activities director for 12 years before she moved into assisted living, and subsequently the health care center where she died at age 96. My husband, Bob, has been a stalwart supporter as well. When our sons, Corey and Antone, were young boys they joined us, too. We'd go to church services on Christmas Eve. We'd rise early on Christmas morning to open presents, eat breakfast and head out the door.

Friends and family gather in the lobby at 10 a.m. We bring cheer to about 140 residents and staff on the three floors. We visit and sing Christmas and Hanukkah songs. From our first year with 24 visitors our numbers have swelled to 50 last year. We have sung a cappella, as well as with accordion, guitar or piano accompaniment. About half of the participants are members and family of Aurora Singers, a Palo Alto-based community chorus. Since 1991 Dawn Reyen, our musical director, and her family have made it a Christmas tradition, leading the singing and playing piano.

Since 2003 Butch and Lynne Shafsky have been Santa and Mrs. Claus, visiting and distributing cards and candy canes. We also have students and families from Peninsula School in Menlo Park, where I teach. VolunteerMatch has brought us folks from San Francisco and San Jose.

We end our visit when the residents have their lunch. Some of the volunteers scurry off to their holiday gatherings. Others linger over snacks and drinks in the lobby while they chat about the moving experiences they have just shared. Over the years we have shed more than a few tears as residents "came alive" and sang the familiar tunes. Some of them got up and danced. Many related stories of Christmases long ago and far away.

Our sons have grown, married and moved away. After our Christmas morning at Lytton, Bob and I catch a plane for Phoenix, so we can spend the rest of the holidays with our young grandkids. It wouldn't be Christmas without our Lytton Gardens tradition.

Becoming part of Bethlehem

When we came home from our first visit to Bethlehem A.D., my 4-year-old said, "We have just been to see the real baby Jesus," and I knew we had come across something very special.

Bethlehem A.D. is a living nativity display that takes place in an otherwise empty lot in downtown Redwood City, recreating an entire Roman-era Hebrew village. The very next year our eldest daughter, then 12, was determined to play a role as one of the folk dancers in the village scene. It involved a few rehearsals beforehand, and then three evenings of performance beside the (real) fires near the marketplace.

Within a couple of years our two eldest boys both joined in, taking on the roles of village children who were able to participate, and one even became one of the ruffians in the chain gang taken away by the (full costume) Roman centurions! It was obvious our family had become hooked.

Eventually even I had to start joining in and for the past few years have been in costume greeting the visitors at the town gate or welcoming the visitors standing in line. I have also taken to helping out in the office and with the costume room in the run up to the event.

Even while away for college, our eldest made a point of coming back home in time to take part.

Volunteering in such a well-organized and charming event has taught our children much about the historical context of life under Roman domination in the first century, as well as making the story of the first Christmas when Jesus was born come alive in their minds. This is not just a place to visit but an experience to remember. Dressing in character and playing a part makes the experience even more memorable for us, and it wouldn't feel completely like Christmas without it.

Bethlehem A.D. takes place at 1312 Middlefield Road, Redwood City, Dec. 21, 22 and 23 from 6 to 9.30 p.m. and entrance is free.

Winter warmth

Girl Scout Troop 60647 of Palo Alto, Service Unit 601, gives back to the community during the holidays by volunteering for the One Warm Coat drive the day after Thanksgiving at Santana Row in San Jose. We collect, sort and organize the donated coats.

One Warm Coat works with local charities to make sure the coats are disbursed among the needy in the area where they are collected. We also participate with the Second Harvest Food Bank twice during the month of December. We pack and sort produce and dry goods for distribution to families.

From 10-year troop member Suzannah: "Volunteering helps me focus on the best parts of the holiday season: good will and being together. Helping people spread good will and holiday spirit, and volunteering with my Girl Scout troop helps me spend time with people I care about. We volunteer at the height of the holiday shopping season, when it's so easy to think about what we want rather than what we already have, but it helps lessen the effects of constant commercials to take a few hours and think about others who may not be as fortunate."

A great grandmother

My name is Zahra Roberts. I am a student at Costano Elementary School in East Palo Alto. I'm in fourth grade.

I'm writing this to you about my Nana. My Nana volunteers at Salvation Army, Food for Life on Tuesdays. She fills food bags and passes them out. Also once a month for the Family Harvest Program.

I would like this to be known because she shows more love to people and children. I am proud to be her granddaughter.

Soul food

Almost 13 years ago, my mom at age 65, a lifetime native of Alabama, decided to leave all her friends, her family, her house and all her "stuff" to relocate to Palo Alto to be near my young family. For years she volunteered almost daily at La Comida, an organization that provides nutritious lunches for local seniors.

In a word, she loved La Comida. She loved the seniors that came every day to eat lunch. She loved the other volunteers that made up the daily "crews" to serve the lunch. She loved the Avenidas and La Comida staff, the cooks and especially the manager, Mary Ruth, who she has often described as "the hardest working person I know." She was part of the structure of that community and that sense of belonging was part of her core.

On Easter 2012, my mom had a pretty severe stroke followed by multiple related health issues over the course of the next three months. She was in and out of the hospital and spent an extensive few weeks at a local rehabilitation center. Once she was home and stable, she wanted to return to La Comida to volunteer.

I was uncomfortable with her being there without any support, so I began to go with her to provide whatever "backup" she needed. I knew that she loved going there before, but now I understand it. The first day that she came in, walking rather unconfidently with her walker and having lost about 20 pounds, a table of seniors recognized her, then stopped eating and stood up and applauded her.

She was overwhelmed. This was her world, and I had just been allowed a glimpse of the genuine affection and gratitude that filled my mom in a way that nothing else could.

Going to La Comida now informs our week, we know that on Mondays and Wednesdays, she greets everyone as they come in and gives out milk. So that means on Sundays and Tuesdays we need to pick out her nicest clothes and matching shoes and earrings so that she is ready to go the next morning. It is motivating her to reorient in time and space because she is confident that they will miss her if she isn't there.

I always admired my mom for what she did for other people at La Comida. Now in a different role, those people do so much more for her.

Midtown Court food drive

The Midtown Court food drive has become a labor of love for me and a core group of eight volunteers.

I sent a message via the Midtown Court Neighbors & Friends email list and immediate received replies of "Yes," "Let's do it" and "How can I help?"

Great, I thought, my closest neighbors are willing to volunteer during the holidays.

We have set a goal of giving two grocery bags with one week of meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) for 50 neighbors in need.

We joined Second Harvest Food Bank as partners in their food-collection program. The food bank staff is so helpful, and the website is easy to navigate. Second Harvest provided a web page for donations.

The primary goal is to make it fun by assigning roles and tasks that fit everyone's schedules and comfort levels. "Food Drive Runners" David, Paul, Clark and Art happily drive to pick up supplies, deliver barrels and do their weekly Friday pick ups at food drop-off sites: JJ&F Market, Miki's Farm Fresh Market and Rick's Ice Cream.

"Food Drive Scouts" Lenore, George and Wendy are having fun making their weekly trips to food drop-off sites to observe if barrels are full. "Food Drive Sorters" Ferne, Wendy and Janet relish their task of separating food items by type. Kendra and Sachiko's Girl Scout Troop 60697 have paid for 100 pounds of oats from Milk Pail in Mountain View to help reach our food goals.

Comments from our volunteers on why they chose to volunteer for the holidays: They empathize with recipients, one having been a single mom struggling to feed her children, and they felt compelled to help put food on our closest neighbors' tables.

Inspiring the children

Our family has been fortunate in many ways, but one of the most notable is the incredible child care that we found for our children. Sherry and Bob Marsden run a small day-care center out of their cozy home, and in addition to the love and care we receive, they have inspired and encouraged our entire family to be more thoughtful and charitable within our community.

Every year during the holidays, this couple organizes food and book drives, accepting donations of food, books and pajamas. Once all the donations have been made, the young children they care for, ages 5 and below, help wrap and deliver the donations to the Community Services Agency in Mountain View, where they get a short tour conducted by the staff. This provides the little ones with an opportunity to ask questions and to really understand the importance of their delivery. Of course, touching photos are taken each year, capturing the children proudly preparing and delivering their donations. It is always an eagerly anticipated activity and a wonderful experience for everyone.

My oldest son is now 4 and it has always been a mother/son date to select what food, which books and what kind of pajamas we donate. Last year when driving to the bookstore, my then 3-year-old said to me, "But Mommy, EVERYONE has books!" "No, sweetheart," I said. "Some children don't even have a place to live." He was silent for a moment and then, looking me in the eye through the rearview mirror, he said very seriously, "They can come live with us. Our house is really big and good!" (Our house being a modest two-bedroom apartment).

Does he have a highly developed sense of gratitude? Not quite yet. He does, however, possess a keen sense of compassion and is very considerate and generous to others. I am so thankful for this tender trait, for the example set by such wonderful role models and for the opportunity to build positive and lasting memories with my family while serving others.

Holiday spirit and CSA

My high school daughter and I were introduced to Community Services Agency (CSA) in Mountain View through our involvement in National Charity League. The two of us participated in various volunteer activities during the year working in the food pantry and store. We also volunteered for the Christmas toy distribution.

To be honest, my daughter did not love getting up early for this event, but it became our favorite activity with CSA. Working with the parents to find a very special gift for each of their children was very rewarding. The parents are so appreciative to receive even a small amount of gifts and new pajamas to give their children at Christmas.

The next year my son and husband also volunteered, and it has become our annual family tradition. My children are now in college and this is one of the activities we will do as a family during their Christmas vacation. It reminds us all how fortunate we are and really sums up the meaning of the holidays.

Music and the Media Center

This past year I was in charge of my law firm's (Silicon Valley Office of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton) annual collection efforts and fundraising drive for the Second Harvest Food Bank. I am sure many others have done the same thing in their companies.

I am a volunteer with the Midpeninsula Community Media Center as a community producer. For the past 22 years I have produced many programs of community interest. Holiday music programs have been a large part of my work for public access cable television. I have recorded holiday concerts at the Christmas Creche Exhibit, the annual Heritage of Christmas Concert in Menlo Park, as well as organ concerts at St. Mark's Episcopal Church. I have also produced video tours for broadcast.

Over the years I have made so many videos that the Media Center has broadcast them around the clock all during the holiday week!

'Fast for Joy'

During this season of giving thanks and feasting on the plethora of food at holiday parties and social gatherings, our company has chosen instead to voluntarily fast and donate the money saved to feed children around the world.

Elluva, an early-stage Palo Alto startup, has launched its "Fast For Joy" campaign Thursday, Nov. 15, and has already raised almost $2,000 in donations. Through the power of social media, friends and family, the campaign, which runs through Saturday, Dec. 1, will donate all the proceeds to Rice Bowls, a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

"We are passionate about innovations in small business tools, education and philanthropy. We want to change the conception that being a philanthropist means you have to be rich," said Alex Sox, CEO. "I have used fasting in the past to seek clarity, balance, healing and guidance. I find that it has helped me in amazing ways by tapping into the creative energy and force of the Infinite."

Every two seconds, an orphan dies from malnutrition, according to UNICEF, and a $20 donation provides about 80 meals.

We started 'Fast for Joy,' hoping it will become an annual event that everyone can participate in. Instead of spending marketing dollars on an advertising campaign, we would rather take those funds and create life-affirming events that engage our community and spread good will.

Expected to launch in 2013, elluva is a technology company creating a mobile and Web-based platform for marketing promotions, which will enable business customers to create, test-market, rollout and track commerce activity.

With a couple of clicks, elluva has done a good thing, paid it forward, crowd-funded a successful fundraising effort and supported starving children around the world. Anyone is welcome to fast or just make a donation. With a $10,000 goal in mind, there are even incentive levels for those willing to support "Fast for Joy." If you would like to fast, make a donation or join the group, please visit

— Grace Belangia, Palo Alto


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Posted by MCT Food Drive Team
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Now is the time to take action! Here’s how to help:

$$$ Money gifts In order for us to reach our goal of 100 grocery bags for 50 Midtown & Palo Alto neighbors who are in need we must have money to buy foods that people may not place in barrels at food drop off sites. Checks can be made payable to:
Midtown Court Neighbors & Friends
Mail tO: P.O. BOX 113 Palo Alto, CA 94302
Drop off non-perishable food donations in barrels located at the following locations:
Look for 2nd Harvest Food Bank Barrels
1) Miki’s Farm Fresh Market, 3445-A Alma St @ E. Meadow
2) Rick’s Ice Cream, Charleston Shopping Center, 3946 Middlefield Rd
3) Midtown Center, parking lot next to Wells Faro ATM @ Colorado Ave & Middlefield Rd.
4) JJ & F Market, 520 College Ave. @ El Camino Real
5) Unitarian Universalist Church,Rooms #4&5 505 E. Charleston Rd. at this location, FRIDAYS ONLY 1:30-4:30pm!

Meals in a can (stew, chili, soup) 100% Fruit Juices Tuna/Canned Meat/Beans Peanut Butter & Nut Butters
Low Sugar Cereals Canned Fruits and Vegetables
Or Safeway or other grocery Store gift card.
These 100 grocery bags go directly to Midtown & Palo Alto residents who may not otherwise qualify for food programs.
Forward this message to friends and family and update your Face book status. Simply forward this email to everyone you know.
Let’s help our neighbors put food on their tables!
We have a role that can fit anyone’s hectic holiday schedule.
Time Commitment: 30 min. to 1 hour Sort food items or fill grocery bags or pick up food. Contact us. Phone 650-283-9910

Like this comment
Posted by Reader of the print version
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 2, 2012 at 1:54 pm

This is a great article and very inspiring. The print version has photographs and names of the families involved.

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