Holiday gift-giving program for elderly carries added resonance amid coronavirus pandemic

Seniors may find themselves more isolated this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, underscoring the value of Columbus nonprofit group Besa's Adopt a Senior program in which volunteers buy them gifts.

Eric Lagatta
The Columbus Dispatch
Besa volunteers Rob Lyons, left, and Chris Hobbs, far right, join with others to help deliver Adopt a Senior gifts last year at the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging. Besa leaders hope to reach 1,500 seniors this year.

Ever since her coffee carafe shattered during the move into a senior living community, Virginia Trudell has had to rely on a makeshift method to brew and drink her daily cup of joe.

For the past six months, Trudell, 59, has brewed the beverage from her standard drip coffee maker directly into a heat-resistant mug and manually strained the grounds. It's taxing and tedious, but well worth it for the morning pick-me-up.

“I figured out a way to at least get a cup,” Trudell said with a laugh.

When Trudell learned about a holiday gift-giving program available to the residents at Stygler Village in Gahanna, she drafted a wish list with just that one desired item.

She will be one of more than 1,500 seniors in central Ohio receiving gifts this holiday season through the Adopt a Senior program created by the Columbus nonprofit group Besa, which helps people connect with local charities for volunteer work.

For Trudell, the coffee maker may simplify her morning routine, but what's more important is the notion that a stranger might care enough to give her a gift. 

"It's a blessing," she said.

Life has not been easy for Trudell, who lost her two adult children unexpectedly. Her three grandchildren are the closest family she has, but at 15,16 and 20 years old, they're hardly in a position to care for Trudell as she ages.

Two seniors at Stygler Village last year unwrap gifts from Secret Santas who participated in Besa's Adopt a Senior program.

After spending years on a waitlist for Stygler Village — operated by National Church Residences — Trudell finally was able to move in at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, limiting her ability to socialize with her neighbors in her new community.

It's people in situations like Trudell's that inspired Besa founder and CEO Matthew Goldstein to start the Adopt a Senior program in 2012. Now, amid a deadly pandemic that has further isolated an already vulnerable population, its mission to provide a bright spot is more resonant than ever.

“In my mind, what matters more than how we treat our most vulnerable community members?,” Goldstein said. “I think it’s important for us as a community to demonstrate that they matter, that we love them.”

Throughout its eight years, the program has enlisted thousands of central Ohio volunteers to be Secret Santas, providing more than $350,000 in gifts to more than 6,800 seniors.

The items seniors request span the gamut, from warm blankets to jigsaw puzzles to DVD collections of classic Western films, Goldstein said.

Besa relies on outside groups to compile its list of seniors, and this year is working with five agencies, the most ever. However, because of restrictions imposed by COVID-19, the program's reach has slightly diminished since last year, when $100,000 worth of gifts was distributed to more than 2,000 seniors.

The vast majority of recipients come through the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging, whose case managers identify seniors who may be alone and who stand to benefit the most from the Adopt a Senior program.

“When they get that wish fulfilled, it’s really special,” said Cindy Farson, director of the agency. “This year, even more people are feeling isolated, and the caring gesture is going to go a long way.”

Volunteers can sign up to be Secret Santas beginning Sunday at

Typically, the day when volunteers drop off gifts doubles as a holiday festival featuring photos with Santa Claus, crafting activities and refreshments. This year, however, volunteers will bring their gifts on Dec. 6 to the Agency on Aging's headquarters at 3776 S. High St. to make a contactless delivery.

Nikki Miracle and her Gahanna family have participated as Secret Santas for four years. As a hospice social worker, Miracle, 42, holds a special place in her heart for seniors. 

And now that her 72-year-old mother with dementia lives with the family, it’s even more important for Miracle and her husband, Chris, to teach their 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter the value of caring for the elderly. 

Every year, the children add whimsical drawings with heartwarming messages to the gifts to provide some cheer to the recipients. Often, the Miracle family will receive a thank-you note in return.

“Even before the pandemic I think it’s important because a lot of times I think seniors are forgotten,” Miracle said. “This is a way to really connect with them and brighten their spirits.” 

Seniors such as Joyce Jorgensen appreciate the kind gestures. Jorgensen, 75, has lived in Stygler Village for five years since being widowed.

The coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult to visit with her family in the region, but she looks forward every year to the thoughtful gifts she receives from Secret Santas. (This year, she's hoping for some kitchen utensils.)

“I think it’s wonderful that people are thinking of seniors,” Jorgensen said. “I enjoy it every year.”