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Nonprofit asks public to give a bleep about vets this season

Christmas visit lasts three hours

Scott Iwasaki]
The Park Record

The holidays are a time for giving and the local nonprofit Giving a Bleep encourages local residents to help them give something back to our country’s veterans.

For the past five years, Giving a Bleep, known for presenting a musical comedy that raises funds for local nonprofits, has taken a group of people to spend time with residents of the William E. Christofferson Salt Lake Veterans Home on Christmas day.

The visit usually lasts between noon and 3 p.m. and participants can come and go as they please, said Giving a Bleep Executive Director Annette Velarde.

“Anybody can go with us: old and young, families and friends,” Velarde said. “All they can do to register is go to our website (www.givingableep.com) and click on the ‘Give Your Heart Not Your Wallet’ link.”

The registration is just a way for Velarde to communicate with people who want to visit the home.

“It gives me an place where I can give them updates if it starts to snow and things like that,” she said. “Other than that, we just ask people to come whenever it’s comfortable for them and to stay as long as it feels comfortable to them.”

If the three-hour block isn’t convenient for people who want to participate, they can go early or later.

“All they need to do is tell the front desk that they are part of the Park City group,” Velarde said.

The visits are low-key and casual.

“We usually just sit with the residents, but if we are blessed to have someone in the group who can play piano, we will sing carols,” Velarde said. “And that has been an amazing experience.”

The lower floor of the home is home to those veterans who are suffering from dementia.

“You walk into that room and it looks like these people who have served our country are toys who have run out of batteries,” Velarde said. “Most of them are slumped over or sleeping.”

That changes when the music starts.

“It’s an amazing thing to see when they hear music they recognize,” Velarde said. “They literally come to life. You can see them tapping their hands on their knees to keep time with the music. Some even try to sing the refrain.”

Residents on the upper floor are more alert.

“There have been times when I on had to hold someone’s hand as they watch reuns of ‘Gunsmoke,’” Velarde said.

In additon to singing to veterans, the group members will sit and listen.

“Many times they just want to tell their stories,” Velarde said. “I’ve heard dozens of life stories. To me, they are a window in time of a period in our country that I missed.”

A former teacher told one story that stuck with Velarde.

“He was from the area and went to what was then Rick’s College to become a teacher,” Velarde said. “This was in the 1940s and you only had to have an associates degree to teach in the out-country schools.”

To pay for the tuition, he ate cheese sandwiches that were given to him every day by the local grocers, she said.

“Then you think about how many kids this guy affected that the guy making the cheese sandwiches for him didn’t realize,” Velarde said. “It’s like ripples in a pond.”

Velarde hopes Giving a Bleep’s efforts, like the sandwich maker’s, will also make ripples in the pond through this program.

The William E. Christofferson Salt Lake Veterans Home houses 80 to 85 fulltime residents and out of those, 50 or 60 are left there on Christmas day because they are too unhealthy to be checked out, Velarde said.

“I knew I wanted Giving a Bleep to do something other than fundraise, but still give something back,” she said. “And I thought about what made my holidays’ memorable when I was younger.”

Give Your Heart, Not Your Wallet is based on a program Velarde participated in called the Holiday Project, where people would visit rest homes on the major holidays.

“Those are truly the only holidays that I remember and I remember them because of individuals that I connected with during each visit,” Velarde said. “I always wanted to bring something like that back to my life.

“Fast-forward 20 years, I have a teenager (Ruli) that I can’t, at the time, make him put down his electronics,” she said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do about this?’ and that’s when the idea came back.”

Velarde looked around Summit County to start the program.

“At the time, there was only one in Summit County and a majority of its residents were taken out by families on Christmas day because their relatives lived close by,” she said. “Also, many of these residents were still in pretty good shape mentally and physically.”

After a short search, a local veteran suggested that Velarde look into the veterans’ nursing home.

“When I did, I found it the perfect scenario,” she said. “There were enough residents that we could bring a group down, instead of just my family.

“The only qualification to be housed in the home is that you have had to serve at least one day of your entire life in the Armed Forces,’ Velarde said. “This is a great benefit that people should know more about.”

She also liked the staff’s attitude.

“They said we could bring them anything we wanted to as far as gifts and food went,” Velarde said. “The administration opinion was these people had fought in wars, so who are we to tell them what they can and cannot have?”

Velarde is looking forward to this Sunday’s visit.

“I would encourage anyone who knows that Christmas is really a day of sharing and not receiving, and who has a soft spot in their hearts for veterans or our elderly community to come,” she said. “It can be a tough conversation to tell your kids that they have to get out of their pajamas and put down their toys so they can visit elderly veterans, but it’s worth it.

“On a personal level, this has completely changed how Ruli sees Christmas,” she said. “While holidays have no religious significance in our home, they surely have social significance and this has been a great way for us to give something back.”

For more information about Giving a Bleep’s Give Your Heart, Not Your Wallet program, visit http://www.givingableep.com.


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