Karen Lasagna of Huntington Beach has already completed her holiday shopping, but a larger task lies ahead. Lasagna now has 8,000 gifts to wrap and deliver.
That's why last week, Lasagna spent nearly all day on the telephone recruiting volunteers for the Holiday Project, a national organization that sends people of all ages out into the community to deliver gifts and visit shut-ins during the holiday season.
As Orange County chairwoman for the Holiday Project, Lasagna, 29, is one of about 35,000 volunteers nationwide who take time out of their hectic holiday schedules to share a few hours with more than 200,000 people confined to hospitals, convalescent homes, psychiatric facilities, orphanages, prisons and juvenile halls. Although visits take place on holidays throughout the year, the Christmas and Hanukkah season are the busiest by far, according to Colby Haines, Southwest regional public relations director for the project. This year, the organization has declared the week of Dec. 14 through Dec. 20 as Holiday Project Week.
In Orange County, Holiday Project visits began on the first day of Hanukkah and will continue through Christmas Day, when volunteers like Haines and Jay Churchill will spend part of the day visiting with people in convalescent homes in the area.
For Churchill, a Santa Ana mortgage banker who has been a volunteer since 1979, "visiting" on Christmas Day has become a family tradition. "My son is 22 now and lives in Virginia," Churchill said. "But he is coming home for Christmas, and when I talked to him recently, one of the first things he asked was: 'We're visiting again this year, aren't we?' "
Churchill, the Holiday Project's regional chairman for the Southwest, an area from Hawaii to Arizona and portions of California, believes that those Christmas Day visits help make the holiday special for his family.
"I think that is really what Christmas is all about," he said. "Many people are alone out there. And when you see how much it means to them--even just a few minutes--then it can't help but touch you. By going out and visiting someone in a convalescent home on Christmas morning, you come away with a greater appreciation of your own family and friends."
The Holiday Project began in 1971 in San Francisco when eight people delivered gifts in hospitals on Christmas Day. Within two years, 400 volunteers were participating in the program. By 1980, the project was formally incorporated as a nonprofit organization. And last year, 35,000 volunteers visited 212,000 people in institutions across the United States.
Volunteers take along gifts of stuffed toys, slippers, coffee mugs, socks and fancy soaps, but the gifts are mere "ice-breakers," Lasagna said. "The real gift we bring is ourselves."
Lasagna, Haines and Churchill all wear Holiday Project T-shirts emblazoned with the words "you are the gift."
"And it is true," Haines said. "It is not just a slogan. People complain about the commercialization of Christmas. Well, this gets back to the original purpose of the holidays."
"People seem to be looking for something to do to make their holidays more meaningful," Churchill said. "People who have come along and gotten involved in the Holiday Project have found it is exactly what they are looking for. I have been on an awful lot of visits. I get all choked up just talking about them," he said, his voice cracking. "To me a visit is complete when I have created one smile on the face of an elderly woman" whose lights were out when he got there.
Churchill recalls a visit four years ago when he and his wife, Barbara, took along their 5-year-old niece. "We had visited a small convalescent hospital in Tustin," he said. "And in the car on the way back home, my niece was talking about how good she felt about the visit. She said: 'This must be how God feels.' "
Some longtime Holiday Project volunteers like Karen Lasagna have favorite memories of special visits. For Lasagna it was on Veteran's Day last year. "I was visiting a man in his late 60s. He had no legs and the use of only one arm. His speech was slurred as the result of a stroke. I sat in his room, and we talked for an hour about his dreams and his goals. He was a pilot in Korea. I found myself telling him about my dream of getting my pilot's license. And I remember he said: 'Without our dreams, what do we have?' That visit was a gift for me," Lasagna said.
Holiday Project volunteers have been requested by 97 different institutions in Orange County this holiday season. "At this time we have enough volunteers to visit only 47 places," Churchill said, "but we are not going to stop until we get enough people for all 97."
Lasagna also needs additional volunteers to help wrap gifts during Holiday Project's gift-wrapping party from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Fairview State Hospital, 2501 Harbor Blvd., in Costa Mesa.