This week two years ago, COVID-19 pandemic restrictions kept people from gathering for the holidays.
Shutdowns only compounded the sadness, depression and loneliness already felt by many older adults living in assisted care facilities, including Anita Thompson.
Thompson lives at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois’ Gable Point Senior Housing in Crystal Lake.
During the pandemic, there were no gatherings for anything, including Thanksgiving. Residents couldn’t even sit outside on the benches, Thompson said.
But this year, with restrictions lifted and through the efforts of Crystal Lake resident Jacci Richards, founder of the all-volunteer nonprofit Fisher Outreach Group Inc., Thompson and about 45 of her fellow residents shared a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings on Saturday.
“When we have an event like this, it pulls people together,” Thompson said. “It changes the atmosphere of the building. It fills the building with love, gratitude and caring.”
Richards said in the days leading up to the dinner, she was busy collecting all the donations, cooking five turkeys and preparing the traditional side dishes and deserts. The turkeys and other dishes were provided by MBI Cares, the philanthropic arm of the Woodstock-based tech company, and other local individuals and organizations, she said.
She and a few helpers set tables with flower arrangements, donated by a retired florist, and silverware and glass plates donated by Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Crystal Lake. Other dishes and items to make the dinner complete were donated from various community members and organizations – “too many to count,” Richards said.
Volunteers delivered meals to those who could not, or chose not to, leave their apartments.
The day “went perfectly,” Richards said Monday.
Jennifer LaPorte, of Crystal Lake, the former social services coordinator for Gable Point, said the residents were “so excited” for Saturday’s Thanksgiving dinner.
Prior to the pandemic, the residents often got together for gatherings, meals and holidays in the community room, but there was nothing for the last two years.
“With seniors, especially living in their own individual apartments, they were isolated, many regressed in isolation,” LaPorte said. “People love to eat and gather, and without being able to do that, … the isolation makes depression so much worse.”
Through Richards’ nonprofit and the support of many in the county, Richards helps local families in need, older adults, veterans, military families and others.
This was the first year Richards provided a Thanksgiving meal to residents living in assisted living facilities, but she began helping provide for low-income older adults throughout McHenry County during the pandemic in another way, the adopt-a-grandparent holiday gift program.
To participate residents make a list of items they need or want but may not have the financial ability to purchase for themselves. Donors and volunteers then buy the requested items.
Requested Items can be found at fisheroutreachgroup.com or facebook.com/FisherOutreachGroup and should be purchased by Dec. 8. Gifts also can be purchased through the Fisher Group’s Amazon wish list.
Drop-off locations for the adopt-a-grandparent program:
• Campion Curran Law, P.C., 8600 Route 14, Suite 107, Crystal Lake, 8 a.m. to 4:30 pm Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to noon Fridays;
• Associated Bank, 180 W. Virginia St., Crystal Lake, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays;
• Salon Cora, 5657 Northwest Highway, Suite C1, Crystal Lake, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays; and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays;
• Pots and Pies Bakery, 67 E. Woodstock St., Crystal Lake, 7 a.m. through 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday;
• Miller Verchota Inc., 444 N. Route 31, Suite 104, Crystal Lake, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; and
• Querhammer & Flagg Funeral Home, 500 W. Terra Cotta Ave., Crystal Lake, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
When her parents died unexpectedly within months of each other in 2019, Richards, in the throes of her own personal heartbreak, began the Christmas gift program.
She recalled seeing a screenshot that a director at Fair Oaks Health Care Center in Crystal Lake had posted during COVID on social media. The post included an image of residents at the facility who were sad and isolated and asked for someone to help and provide them with Christmas gifts.
Richards talked it out with her family, and with their blessing, she stepped up and created the adopt-a-grandparent program.
“I looked at their wish lists and asked my family, ‘Could we do this?’ And my kids said, ‘It would be like buying stuff for grandma and grandpa.’ I called the director and said, ‘We got you, and we are buying everything left on their lists, so everyone will have something,’ and we did it.”
Thompson said she “was absolute overwhelmed” by the gifts last year.
“In my life, I had never been in a situation where I got presents,” said Thompson, who grew up in foster care rarely receiving Christmas presents. “I always gave, but receiving gifts, that was not me. I know for a fact some people did go back into feeling their childhood. They had lovely memories, and that kind of brought some of that back. It was wonderful.”
LaPorte, who worked at Gable Point the first year Richards facilitated the program, said at first the residents were hesitant to write down gift ideas.
They asked for pants, robes, air purifiers and rollator walkers. Some asked for simple pleasures like flowers. One resident asked for oranges and apples because, she said, it reminded her of gifts she would get from her parents when she was a child, LaPorte said.
“A lot of these people don’t have a lot of family that live in the area,” LaPorte said. “Holidays are lonely. They don’t get any gifts sometimes. (Adopt-a-grandparent) is a great way to see they are loved, even by just the community.”
The program is facilitated through Richards’s nonprofit and community sponsors, including Campion Curran Law in Crystal Lake which helped wrap and deliver gifts last year, Richards said.
This year, the third year of the gift program, Richards said she expects to provide Christmas gifts for at least 400 people, including 1,500 to 2,000 presents to those living at Gable Point, Fair Oaks, Crossroads Care Center in Woodstock and McHenry County Senior Services.
Last year, volunteer Liz Vergin said the adopt-a-grandparent recipients “got everything they wanted and more.”
Richards set up a table with everything available from slippers and candy to crockpots. Vergin recalled gifting a woman with a walker who “cried tears of absolute bliss, while the rest of us joined her in this moment of what the holiday season is all about, love, joy and giving.”
Vergin, of Grayslake, who met Richards while participating in a coupon class where Richards taught how to save money while providing for a family, described Richards as an angel.
“Jacci sees a need and doesn’t hesitate to jump in – both feet – and help,” said Vergin, who volunteers through Richards’ nonprofit, helping with veterans, children and older adults year-round including planting miniature gardens for the older adults.
What Richards does is “very important” to Thompson and the older adults she lives with, many of whom who never come out of their apartments, Thompson said.
“I know what it is like to have senior depression,” Thompson said. “They are so alone and afraid. This is a very tenuous time. It is a really hard time in life. It is remarkable what Jacci does.”