Stephanie Sloan knocked, but there was no response. So she knocked again.
“Mr. Williams, are you there?”
The hallway of Emeritus Senior Living’s second floor was quiet but for the buzz of overhead lighting. Testing the doorknob, Sloan poked her head into the room labeled “R. Williams,” careful not to jostle her basket of Christmas cards and goodies.
From inside the room, a muffled voice responded.
“Hello, Mr. Williams, are you up for a visitor?” Sloan asked. “Are you ready for a new friend?”
Though Robert Williams wasn’t much for conversation, Sloan said that was all right. As a volunteer with The Holiday Project nonprofit, her duty was to spread Christmas cheer, whether with a card and a “Merry Christmas” or a few minutes of conversation.
“I love to visit older people; they always seem to have a story,” she said.
Dozens of like-minded volunteers visited assisted living facilities in the Fredericksburg area on Christmas Day, determined to bring holiday cheer to residents with good food, good humor and friendly attitudes.
Sally Cooney Anderson, The Holiday Project’s Fredericksburg-area coordinator, gathered volunteers at the Stafford County Fire and Rescue Station off U.S. 17 early Thursday.
The Holiday Project, which is funded by donations and money from AARP Inc., visits facilities in 13 states and Washington, D.C., to “bring the spirit of a holiday to those who would not otherwise have a celebration,” according to its website.
On Thursday, local volunteers visited five different locations. Emeritus, located off Bragg Road in Spotsylvania County, was one.
Cooney Anderson, who has participated in The Holiday Project for several years—a combined 54 years between herself and husband Bobby—spent time addressing the individuals giving up their Christmas mornings to visit area residents.
“Some people do have some families, and do get to leave or might get to go home for the day, but for the majority of people that is not the case,” she said. “So even for some, they might not even want to think of it as Christmas Day, simply because it’s not a time of celebration for them.
“When we come to see them, it does really make it a holiday for them. And so we become, well it says on our pins ‘We’re the gift.’”
In addition to providing conversation and holiday greetings, visitors with The Holiday Project distributed heartfelt Christmas cards, cookies and other small tokens of appreciation—like singing or one-on-one petting time with the canine volunteers—for residents.
Julie Carriger, community relations director for Emeritus at Wilburn Gardens, said the project’s efforts did not go unnoticed or appreciated by residents or workers.
“I volunteered [to work] today, so this group blessed me as much as they blessed the residents. I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” she said. “I think it is amazing, I am just touched—because it does teach people the true meaning of Christmas. The [residents] have been touched. Just the attention being paid to them, they’re feeling the spirit of Christmas.”
For families, the outing proved both a unique bonding experience and a way to spread Christmas cheer to new acquaintances.
Becky Harris, 20, who joined The Holiday Project for the first time with her father, Scott, said she’d been able to meet a lot of area residents that she “wouldn’t have otherwise.”
“A lot of people get very few visitors, so it was great to walk in and see the joy on their faces, and the surprise,” she said.
Scott Harris, director of the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library, said the project achieved the essence of the spirit of giving.
“Everyone could use a smile and a ‘good morning’ on Christmas Day,” he said.
Verrian and Lakisha Ireland of Fredericksburg, with their sons Verrian II, 8, and Asa, 3, joined The Holiday Project for the second year in a row in order to participate in a service-oriented event that was close to home. Verrian Ireland said residents typically “light up” when they see his children, too.
It also provided an opportunity to show their boys the other side of Christmas.
“Christmas is more than just giving gifts,” Verrian Ireland said. “At that age, they’re all about the gifts, but it’s also good to give back.”
Christina Hale, who joined The Holiday Project for the first time with her three children and a friend, said they had been looking for a way to serve “as a family.” That family then felt noticeably changed by the experience.
“I really feel the joy of the people I saw,” said Matt Hargrove, 13. “They smile ear-to-ear, and that makes me feel better inside.”
“It was really heart-touching,” said Bre Hargrove, 12. “Before I came here, I felt dragged into it, but I had a really nice time. To see [residents’] smiles, it lit up my face, too. It makes me so happy.”
As Bre spoke, an Emeritus resident walked up to her and asked if she knew a staff member at her school, then told her to say hello for him, as he’d lived “down the street” from the staff member for several years.
Bre typed in a reminder on her phone, just so she wouldn’t forget.