The Meals on Wheels Secret Santa program is an opportunity for people to give a little extra holiday cheer.

Sponsored by the Southeast Ohio Regional Kitchen, the program benefits housebound seniors in Athens and Hocking counties. What started as an idea from Food Services Coordinator Naomi Squires three years ago turned into a full-fledged donation program with meals, gifts and practical supplies.

“Many of our seniors are homebound, which is why they receive these delivered meals, and the negative health effects of social isolation can deepen during the winter, when there isn’t as much sunlight; the weather gets cooler and the roads become more and more difficult to travel,” Claire Gysegem, public relations manager of Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, or HAPCAP, said in an email. “This program is a way to give back to our seniors who have already given so much to us in our communities.”

HAPCAP is a community action program that serves Hocking, Athens and Perry counties in Southeast Ohio. HAPCAP is the parent organization of the Southeast Ohio Foodbank, which serves 10 counties in Southeast Ohio. The Meals on Wheels program specifically serves Athens and Hocking counties, where the Secret Santa program also focuses its time.

Traditionally, people looking to donate go to the Southeast Ohio Foodbank in Logan or HAPCAP’s main office in Glouster and select a name tag from a Christmas tree. This year, however, the organization encourages people to check out its Amazon Wish List as a way of digital giving, no in-person contact required. 

If people aren’t looking to purchase from Amazon, they can also donate Amazon gift cards or share information about the program with family and friends. Some of the suggested donations include gloves and hats, gift cards for pet food, slippers and socks, ChapStick, cough drops and tissues and/or tea and crackers. 

Those looking for the traditional name tag tree-method can call the Southeast Ohio Foodbank at 740-385-6813 or send an email to info@hapcap.org

“On a larger scale, we’d like to encourage you to call your elderly relatives often to check up on them and to chat,” Gysegem said in an email. “Those phone calls mean so much to them, and we notice that our Meals on Wheels seniors love to share stories about their family with our drivers.” 

Meals on Wheels receives funding from the federal government, so HAPCAP encourages people to reach out to representatives in support of these social programs that serve as lifelines for seniors.

“I love the thank-you cards our seniors write,” Gysegem said in an email. “I don’t know if this will be possible given the pandemic, but some of our drivers take photos of our seniors receiving gifts, and to see the surprise on their faces is heartwarming.” 

Students also see the benefits of the program. 

“It’s important for Meals on Wheels to have people donate and host this event during the pandemic because, for people (who) are immunocompromised, such as the elderly—it can be difficult for them to safely acquire food during this time,” Sophia Hoersten, a freshman studying pre-nursing, said in a message. “Meals on Wheels allows those people to receive food without leaving their house.”

Other students have firsthand experiences with Meals on Wheels and encourage others to participate as well.

“I think Meals on Wheels is one of the most selfless and genuine events of the year,” Grace Braslawsce, a freshman studying photojournalism, said in a message. “My family used to help out with Meals on Wheels in their hometown and would do it year round. So I have seen the outcome of this, and seeing the smiles on people’s faces makes it all worth it. It’s truly beautiful.”

Especially during the 2020 pandemic, Gysegem thinks it’s more important to help out now than ever before.

“Our seniors are high-risk for the Coronavirus, and if they weren’t completely isolated before, they are now,” Gysegem said in an email. “We need to be able to reach them safely in their homes, and we want them to know how much we love and care for them. Also, this pandemic has had a devastating effect on not only the working class, but for people who were already poor. The pandemic has shone a light through the gaping holes in our social safety net, and we need to continue to fight for the well-being and protection of our most vulnerable neighbors.”

More information on how and what to donate can be found on the Southeast Ohio Regional Kitchen’s Facebook page or hapcap.org/news.

@rileyr44

rr855317@ohio.edu