Local light up night helps campaign grant thousands of holiday wishes

By Krystal Hare

Point Park News Service

A carriage ride during a the 2011 light up night. Photo courtesy of PRESENTS FOR PATIENTS ®™

Once, an elderly nursing home resident asked only for a cup of McDonald’s coffee as a Christmas present.

Another care home resident wanted a delivered pizza and to meet “hunks.”

And another received the first Christmas present of their life.

Gibsonia-based organization PRESENTS FOR PATIENTS®™ (PFP) granted these Christmas wishes and currently works to grant more this year through its annual adopt-a-patient Christmas-gifting campaign, kicking off this season with its annual community light up night.

“If you think about it, behind the eyes of every elderly person there’s a small child who just wants to be happy at Christmas time,” said Larry Weiss, a member of the PFP planning committee.

PFP founder and St. Barnabas Health System president William V. Day began working for St. Barnabas in the 1960s. In 1984, he decided to collaborate with three other area care facilities, starting the program for holiday visiting and gifting for patients.

“[Day] knew Christmas time could be particularly depressing for nursing home patients and nothing brightens their holiday more than being remembered and having visitors,” explained Valerie Day Wilden, PFP’s spokeswoman.

As a way to spread information about PFP and to attract volunteers and participants, Day approached WPXI in 1985 for help and his wish was granted by Pittsburgh talk show host the late Don Riggs who began promoting the program.

“When you’re running a nursing home, it’s difficult to also have time to promote all of the good things you have going on or to appeal to the people in the community for some help,” said Wilden. “But because [Riggs] promoted it on his show, it just sort of took off.”

(Back from left) Santa, WPXI’s Kevin Benson and Valerie Day Wilden pose with a patient during the 2011 light up night. Photo courtesy of PRESENTS FOR PATIENTS  ®™

This year, St. Barnabas Health System celebrates 29 successful seasons of its PFP campaign and hopes to give the gift of Christmas cheer to 30,729 patients in 353 nursing care facilities across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, New York, Tennessee and South Carolina.

PFP has been working throughout the years to make Christmas wishes come true, and the employees are full of stories.

“So often, the requests are so small and things that we take for granted,” said Wilden. “For example, one time a patient asked for a McDonald’s cup of coffee. We usually just don’t think about it, but then you’re like: “Oh, I guess they wouldn’t have that opportunity often.”

“Another one that cracked me up was when a lady asked for a delivered pizza and to meet ‘hunks,’” she recalled. “So, we worked with Donna Belajac Casting and she gave us some male models and then a local pizza shop donated a pizza. She never knew what was coming when there was a knock on the door and four gorgeous male models delivered the pizza.”

“I remember one woman was so touched that she said it was the first time she got a Christmas present in her life,” said Weiss.  I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’ But she said, ‘no, I’m Jewish.’ So, I got to inaugurate her first Christmas and [religion] didn’t even matter, because she was just a gentle and lonely woman who was in the nursing home and felt bad.”

“There was also another older man who loved to listen to baseball games on the radio,” he added. “I bought him a transistor radio back in the day; he actually broke down and started to cry, because he was so happy to finally listen to a game again.”

Sometimes, there are even some special circumstances, like disabilities or past careers, which can be catered to in a slightly different way.

“One year, we found a nursing home patient who was a bit younger than the usual patient – she was born without arms and legs – and she did art work with her feet,” explained Wilden. “So, a downtown studio gave her an easel and supplies, and let her use the studio for a day.”

“This year, there’s someone who was a newspaper reporter for a long time,” she added. “I’m wondering if we can get her the gift of a subscription or something of the like and maybe a tour of one of today’s newsrooms so that she can see how much everything has changed.”

Other times, the patients can have their wishes granted at PFP’s annual community light up night, like the attendance of special guests or provisions of special experiences.

“Last year, there was a couple from a PFP participating facility who wanted to ride a horse drawn carriage,” explained Debbie Panei, the executive director of St. Barnabas Charities. “So, they got to take their carriage ride around an illuminated path; it was a Christmas wish come true for them.”

“Neil Walker has also been involved before,” she continued. “We had a resident who was a big Pirates fan and we surprised her with a visit from Neil; he even brought a signed jersey and baseball for her to keep.”

To aid PFP’s mission, join PFP and WPXI, a long-time sponsor, on November 29 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the PFP Community Night at St. Barnabas, 5827 Meridian Road in Gibsonia. Enjoy the lighting of a 90-foot tree, this year’s country Christmas theme and various seasonal treats, like hot chocolate around a fire.

“There will be events available free and open to the public,” said Panei. “We’ll have horse-drawn hayrides, live country Christmas music, and hot chocolate around the bonfire while we’re roasting marshmallows, photos with Santa Claus and then we’ll top-off the night with Zambelli fireworks.”

PFP only asks one thing of attendees: bring a new and unwrapped gift.

“We’re going to have over 30,000 patients participating this year,” said Panei. “So, we’re doing sort of a grassroots effort in asking the community to become involved in adopting a patient or bringing a gift that we can deliver to them so that we will be able to provide Christmas gifts for all those patients this year.”

“The gift items are so simple,” explained Wilden. “Most often, we get requests for Steeler sweatshirts and also just small things like body lotion, candy and socks. We’re also realizing that when we ask people to visit patients, the gift of time is really the biggest gift of all.”

But if you don’t have time to visit a patient in your busy schedule or can’t attend a PFP event, you can also donate or adopt a patient by phone. Also, WPXI will host PFP’s phone-a-thon live in the Dec. 1 morning news broadcast. Don’t forget to look for Weiss dressed as the dancing Santa behind all of the people answering phones at the phone desk.

Call (724)444-5521 or visit presentsforpatients.com for more information on how you can help.