On Christmas Day in 1972, eight San Francisco residents decided to visit a local hospital for the elderly. They had lunch with the residents, talked, laughed. And then they decided to do something they hadn’t initially planned — come back the next year with more people. From that first meeting, the idea of groups of strangers meeting with those in residential facilities on holidays spread across the country.
The idea behind what is now known as The Holiday Project is simple: Gather groups of people together to visit nursing homes, hospitals and other residential facilities so that the otherwise lonely can experience the seasonal joy that only guests can bring. For millions of people who live in these places, visits from far-away family or friends who’ve passed on are distant memories. Confined to beds or wheelchairs, their Christmas becomes just another monotonous day, or even an occasion for despair.
Fortunately, The Holiday Project has changed the lives of millions of elderly in this country. Soon after its official nonprofit designation in 1980, affiliated groups began visiting homes and institutions in 36 states during the Christmas and Hanukkah seasons.
One year in the 1980s, as heavy snow fell across New York City, some of the visits had to be canceled. Leaders of a large psychiatric institution, who were counting on The Holiday Project to provide visitors for their patients, asked if the organization would come on another holiday because their residents enjoyed so few visits like these. In February, the group organized another visit and brought presents to the residents. Thus began a new tradition of visiting institutional residents on holidays beyond those of December.
So, what does it feel like to volunteer for an organization like The Holiday Project? According to one volunteer cited at holidayproject.info, “I had a wonderful time on Christmas Day; I am especially grateful as I am single and do not always have holiday plans. The visit was priceless for the volunteers and those we visited. Some said that it really made their day because they hadn’t seen family or anybody for a long time that cared about them enough to spend time with them.”
In the 1990s, groups started independently visiting residential facilities and volunteers in the centers grew dramatically. Since the idea behind The Holiday Project was becoming more grassroots, its board of directors decided to change the organization’s focus to educating the community instead of facilitating groups. Ways remain to volunteer through the nonprofit, but if you are inspired to visit residents on your own, so much the better!
Interested in making a lonely person’s holiday season bright? Consider visiting a local residential facility by yourself, with your family or with a group. Check here to see if there’s a Holiday Project Visit Team in your area. If not, perhaps you can think about starting one today!