MORE THAN JUST A GIFT

Bishop Moore stu­dent de­liv­ers magic of Santa to el­derly

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate San­tich

At the Court­yards of Orlando Care Cen­ter, a nurs­ing home on Mercy Drive, the sound of an elec­tric gui­tar spills out into the cor­ri­dors from the com­mu­nity room. In­side, next to a Santa-cap-wear­ing mu­si­cian rock­ing some Christmas tunes, 16-year-old Kennedy Jack­son is pre­par­ing to dis­trib­ute the first of a vir­tual sleigh­ful of presents — $1,700 worth of blan­kets, scarves, puzzles, hand­made bracelets and cards to 150 re­cip­i­ents.

“It just makes me so happy just to see them smile,” she said. “Get­ting a Christmas gift is some­thing so sim­ple — some­thing I used to take for granted — but you see how much it means.”

The Bishop Moore Catholic High School ju­nior may tech­ni­cally still be a child her­self, but al­ready she has learned that the magic of Santa is not just for the very young.

For three years now, Kennedy has de­voted her De­cem­bers to mak­ing, buy­ing, wrap­ping and de­liv­er­ing Christmas gifts to scores of el­derly re­cip­i­ents she doesn’t know.

“When I was 14, I was just think­ing about all the elders, es­pe­cially in nurs­ing homes or those who are for­got­ten,” Kennedy said one day last week. “I won­dered, what do they get for Christmas?”

She had been in nurs­ing homes a few times as a child, tag­ging along with her mother, reg­is­tered di­eti­tian Bayy­i­nah Tobey-Jack­son, who con­sults on the menus at Court­yards of Orlando.

“I thought the peo­ple there were re­ally nice,” Kennedy said. “They’re fun to be around.”

“Fun” is not the word your av­er­age kid — or adult — would use to de­scribe any­thing about a nurs­ing home. But Kennedy isn’t av­er­age. She’s an honor stu­dent, track stand­out and en­gi­neer­ing in­tern who has launched an an­nual com­mu­nity ser­vice project called Santa to Se­niors.

Once she started think­ing about el­derly peo­ple at Christmas, she de­cided to re­search the topic. She learned about the sober­ing rates of iso­la­tion, lone­li­ness and de­pres­sion.

So that first year — with only three weeks un­til Christmas, a lot of long nights and fi­nan­cial back­ing and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port from her dad, Orlando at­tor­ney Gre­gory Jack­son — she bought and wrapped 50 gifts with 50 hand­writ­ten Christmas cards. Then she de­liv­ered them to the res­i­dents of Court­yards.

“There was a lot of smiles, a lot of laugh­ing, a lot of ap­pre­ci­a­tion,” Kennedy said. “To see that I could help some­one feel happy with some­thing so sim­ple, I thought it was im­por­tant to con­tinue.”

The next year, in fact, Kennedy started recruiting class­mates in hopes of ex­pan­sion.

“I grabbed as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, usu­ally as they were walk­ing to class,” she said. “I’d say, ‘I know we only have six min­utes, but let me just ex­plain what I’m do­ing here.’”

Some protested. Nurs­ing homes and old peo­ple? No, thank you very much.

But a de­voted group of seven signed up. They not only cov­ered the res­i­dents at Court­yards, they also added an as­sisted-liv­ing fa­cil­ity, Well­springs Res­i­dence in Apopka. That year, they bought, wrapped and de­liv­ered 100 presents.

And this year, Kennedy and her team started plan­ning in late Septem­ber. They held bake sales to raise money. And ul­ti­mately they cov­ered Court­yards, Well­springs Res­i­dence and the St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Apopka, which brings the presents to el­derly res­i­dents too frail to leave their homes.

For class­mate Stephanie Her­nan­dez, a friend and fel­low ju­nior at Bishop Moore, the ex­pe­ri­ence has been an eye-opener.

“I hadn’t been to a nurs­ing home be­fore,” she said. “It was new to me to see peo­ple in this state, kind of be­ing for­got­ten about. But it was so amaz­ing. I loved see­ing how happy they were.”

To be sure, the re­sponses can be sub­tle. Some res­i­dents can’t see or hear well, and oth­ers have cog­ni­tive im­pair­ments that can make it un­cer­tain whether they’re re­act­ing to the kids’ presents — or their pres­ence.

“Let me tell you, the re­ac­tion from some of them — just see­ing a gift with a bow — I can tell it’s ex­cit­ing to them,” said Wanda Gar­cia, the ac­tiv­ity di­rec­tor at Court­yards. “But they also just love hav­ing young peo­ple here.”

The project has been so ful­fill­ing that, for the spring, Kennedy and her team have de­cided to de­liver blan­kets, stuffed an­i­mals and knit caps to cancer pa­tients, both old and young, in lo­cal hos­pi­tals.

“The feel­ing of Christmas should not be just one day,” Kennedy said. “It can be year-round.”

“Get­ting a Christmas gift is some­thing so sim­ple — some­thing I used to take for granted — but you see how much it means.” Kennedy Jack­son, 16-year-old Bishop Moore Catholic High School stu­dent

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/ORLANDO SEN­TINEL

Vin­cent Her­nan­dez, from left, Kennedy Jack­son and Stephanie Her­nan­dez get presents ready to give to res­i­dents of a nurs­ing home Thurs­day.

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/ORLANDO SEN­TINEL

A res­i­dent of a nurs­ing home gets a present cour­tesy of Kennedy Jack­son’s “Santa to Se­niors” pro­gram.

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