The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Tuesday, December 24, 2002  

Those Who Live the Meaning of This Holiday

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a soft touch when it comes to tear-jerker stories about people who give their time, energy, and hearts to volunteer activities, particularly those serving children, the elderly, and defenseless animals.

Stories such as these are the stock in trade of the Philadelphia Daily News, at least around certain holidays. It’s no surprise, then, that today’s Daily News includes three such stories under the paper’s broader rubric of “Angels of Christmas.”

The Daily News today tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a remarkable 32-year-old man who serves as the athletic director of the West Kensington Boys & Girls Club, and that of Joseph McCloskey, who each year plays Santa Claus at St. Christopher’s Hospital Hematology-Oncology Clinic (along with 17-year-old son Bill and his classmates from LaSalle College High School).

But it was the story of Donnie Wiggs that really knocked me over today.

Wiggs, 36, works as a dishwasher at the Sacred Heart Manor nursing home in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood.

But there’s much more to his role at Sacred Heart than scrubbing pots and pans:

Every chance he gets, he frees himself from the pots in the kitchen to be among the home’s residents. . . .

Wiggs . . . loves working with aged and infirm people so much that he often volunteers his days off at Sacred Heart. With no pots to scrub in the kitchen, he can spend whole days with the home’s residents. Sometimes, he brings along his 3-year-old son, Donnie Jr. . . .

Recently, one of Wiggs’[s] Sacred Heart pals, a man who liked wearing a Phillies hat, became so depressed he stopped eating. Wiggs, an ardent Phillies fan himself, arranged a visit from Maje McDonald, who was batting coach for the Whiz Kids Phillies of the 1950s. . . . The man excitedly talked baseball with the former coach. Later, he started eating again. For a time, he was happy. After his recent death, the man’s daughter wrote a letter to Wiggs. “My mother and I were so comforted by your kindness,” the letter says.

Mary Smalls, Sacred Heart’s director of independent living and personal care, calls Wiggs “our mission in action.” “He’s a doll,” she said. . . .

Wiggs, who is divorced, said he thinks of the staff and residents at Sacred Heart Manor as a big extended family. . . .

It almost didn’t work out this way, said Wiggs, because of what he calls his “criminal past.” Thirteen years ago, Wiggs was convicted of carrying a firearm without a permit and receiving stolen goods. He’d been working at Sacred Heart for three months when, in 1998, a change in Pennsylvania’s Older Adults Protective Services Act barred ex-cons from working in nursing homes. Sacred Heart’s administrator, Sister M. Patricia Michael, said the law gave her no choice but to fire Wiggs.

A year ago, based on a challenge by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, the portion of the law that prohibited ex-con employees was struck down by the state Commonwealth Court as unconstitutional.

Sacred Heart food service director Patricia A. Bridgeford couldn’t wait. “I hurried up and called Donnie to come back here. Why should something he did when he was young and knew no better affect what he does as a mature person?”

After he was forced to leave Sacred Heart, Wiggs, a 1997 graduate of Opportunities Industrialization Center’s hospitality program, worked for McDonald’s and Holiday Inn. He won commendations in both places, but he felt the nursing home was a special place.

The thing about Sacred Heart says Wiggs, “is that you may be depressed when you come in, but you won’t leave that way.”

I feel small in the face of men as such as Donnie Wiggs.

Manewhile, the Philadelphia Inquirer has been lobbing its own contributions to the genre lately, the most moving of which, for me at least, was “Giving the Gift of Dignity to Elderly,” by Mary Beth McCauley in the December 22 edition of the paper.

In this story we learn of Marne Dietterich and the organization she founded, Wrapping Presence, an outreach program of the Doylestown, Pa., Presbyterian Church, which brings Christmas shopping to the elderly in nursing homes who cannot get out to the stores and malls on their own.

Though they host a stream of visitors bearing candy canes and carols, they sorely miss being in on the Christmas preparations. And having themselves been the generous Santas of Christmases past, they are uncomfortable doing all the taking in a season of giving. . . .

Dietterich and her army of 130 volunteers, ages 5 to 81, are turning 11 area nursing homes into veritable North Poles this year. Because of them, residents can shop on-site, wrap, reminisce and munch cookies, making a seasonal mess of things while, in the background, Bing Crosby croons “White Christmas.”

There are volunteers who shop in advance for gifts to be “sold.” There are buddies to help each resident select and wrap. There are picture-takers, pinecone-corsage makers, and home cookie-bakers.

Dietterich and her elves open up shop, generally from 2 to 4 p.m., in a nursing home’s public rooms. There are separate departments for men, women and children. All store merchandise has been donated, or purchased with donations, so the gifts are free. Those who insist on paying will be “charged” -- one smile, maybe, or two hugs. . . .

The parties might look like mayhem, but they result from meticulous planning and a compassionate thoughtfulness. Six weeks ahead, Dietterich begins working with a home’s staff to learn which residents would like to shop. She gets the name, relationship, age and sex of the intended recipients, and lists all this on an index card.

If, as happens, a resident forgets the name of a beloved child or friend, for instance, his wrapping buddy can sneak a look at the card and subtly prompt him, sparing him embarrassment. . . .

The store stocks at least three gift choices for each recipient. “Choice gives the feeling of power,” said Dietterich. And because those who show up to shop inevitably outnumber those who signed up, there’s always more inventory than necessary.

Doylestown Presbyterian Church provides money, space and volunteer power to the nonprofit project, but Dietterich doesn’t consider it religious. “It’s a 100 percent humanitarian thing,” she said. Volunteers come from area Protestant, Catholic, Quaker and Jewish congregations, as well as from the local symphony and the Mercer Museum, where Dietterich works part time. Neither is the project strictly Christmas. “We will wrap their gifts in Hanukkah paper and, if someone wants it, Kwanzaa paper,” she said.

Dietterich leads her charges with a personality as expansive as the season. She wears the same big, plaid skirt -- full of pockets -- to each nursing home, according to volunteers, and can retrieve from its folds whatever the need of the moment, be it a first-aid kit, a screwdriver, or her red rhinestone glasses. . . .

Dietterich’s mother was the first to tell her how frustrating it can be not to do at least a little of the giving at Christmas. One year, her mother told her she hoped no one would visit because she was “always saying ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’” and had nothing to give in return. . . .

From her mother’s death in 1995 until a friend asked to help two years ago, Wrapping Presence was Dietterich’s self-funded personal outreach. Today, there are nursing homes waiting to be included, as well as Wrapping Presence offshoots in Michigan and Virginia. Friends in New York and New Hampshire plan to establish their own programs next year.

“This fills such a very little niche, and I know that,” Dietterich said. “But it is such an important niche, because it makes [residents] feel like complete people.”

God, I love this woman.

And with that I say, Merry Christmas, every one.

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