Angie Villalba recalled how as a kid growing up in a financially struggling family in Brooklyn she was overjoyed to receive gifts on Christmas from anonymous donors.
So when the Valley Stream woman on Saturday saw a “Senior Secret Santa Drive” display at the Roosevelt Field mall, meant to provide holiday gifts for needy seniors, she added a 97-year-old veteran to her shopping list.
“It’s always nice to receive something from someone you don’t know,” said Villalba, 40.
The daylong gift drive at the Garden City mall was an effort by several Nassau County Presbyterian churches “to bring some type of joy” to seniors who are homebound, in nursing homes without family nearby or otherwise isolated, said Akua Agyeman, a deacon at First Presbyterian Church in Oceanside who helped organize the first-time event.
“As joyous as the holiday season can be, for a lot of older adults, it can be depressing if they don’t have family around,” Agyeman said.
The drive also benefited caregivers of seniors who are struggling to make ends meet.
Passersby picked up cards with a list of suggested gift items, such as blankets, coats, undergarments, towels and pajamas.
“There’s a need for basic things that we take for granted,” Agyeman said.
Some donors wanted to personalize their giving and chose a paper “ornament” from a small Christmas tree that included a short description of the person in need and, in some cases, a request for a specific gift.
They included “S.H.,” described as an “82-year-old woman — No visitors at nursing home,” “E.G.," who is “in need of thermals and T-shirts,” and “A.K.,” who was “still not back in my home since [superstorm] Sandy. Would love new bedding or any item … since all my things are gone.”
Villalba chose the ornament that described a “grandpa” and veteran who asked for wool socks and gloves.
“I thought that as a veteran, he shouldn’t be cold,” Villalba said. “We should always take care of our veterans.”
Local churches and nonprofits identified about 200 seniors for the program, and names are still coming in, Agyeman said.
“In our culture, many older folks are forgotten,” said Elsie Ginsberg, 35, of Port Washington, before she began shopping for a senior. “It’s important to remember them.”
Organizers also accepted cash donations. Cynthia Hemley, 48, wrote out a gift tag to “T.J.” and put money in a small cardboard box, signing it “A friend.”
“T.J.” is a single mom raising three kids and caring for a mother with dementia, and that “really spoke to me,” Hemley said.
Hemley was buying Christmas and Hanukkah presents when she stopped to donate. She said she wanted to help someone “who is managing a lot.”
“My family is very fortunate,” Hemley said. “We absolutely have what we need. What we have on our [holiday] list is things we want.”