HANDS: Gentle Acts of Kindness Offer Connection
Many of us are fortunate to be with friends and family during this festive time of year. But for those who are unable to travel or find themselves alone during the holidays, this story will warm your heart. I was moved during the interview process as I discovered a common thread: the gentle acts of kindness that offer connection and delicious food to folks that might otherwise be alone, our seniors.
What better way to feel part of a community than to share a meal or have one delivered to your door by a compassionate person? That was exactly what happened to Megan Humphrey, executive director and founder of HANDS (Helping and Nurturing Diverse Seniors), when more than a decade ago she and a friend were delivering meals to seniors for Temple Sinai synagogue and the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging. She recalls one particular visit. Martha, a senior, shared, “I’m by myself and I don’t ever want to do this at Christmas again.” That’s all it took for Humphrey to realize that she per- sonally would find a way to fulfill this wish for Martha. She stepped into action, and with the help of a friend, Tim Palmer, who offered to do all the paper work to start a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, HANDS was established.
For the past 12 years, Humphrey, her tribe of volunteers and a collaboration of local organizations have made sure that people like Martha have the op- portunity to share this special time of year with community members. Thanks to a solid dose of community partnerships and good-hearted volunteers, HANDS offers an opportunity for hundreds of volunteers to participate in the giving of their time and energies to make the holidays special for seniors. Either by collaborating with the Elks Club annual holiday gathering or orchestrating the Christmas Day delivery program, HANDS has played a key role in lifting the holiday spirit for countless people.
The Burlington Elks club hosts a free dinner on Christmas Day where about 50 to 100 seniors and families gather to share a special holiday meal. In partnership with the Elks Club, HANDS helps get the word out to seniors, gathers volunteers and provides some funding and gift bags. A wrapped gift bag, which in many cases is the only gift that a senior receives during the holiday season, adds to the occasion.
For seniors who are unable to attend a holiday dinner, HANDS spearheads an effort to deliver more than 250 meals and gift bags to older Vermonters on Christmas Day. HANDS partners with Burling- ton School Food Project, Champlain Valley Agency on Aging, Elks Club, Temple Sinai and a host of volunteers, nonprofits and businesses to provide meals and gift bags. Humphrey graciously says, “I couldn’t do any of these projects without the help of hundreds of other people. There are so many people and businesses who are in- credibly generous with their time, talent and funding. It will allow HANDS to keep expanding their programs to help even more folks.”
Apart from the holiday season, HANDS covers the costs of an ad- ditional weekly meal to two senior centers with plans to continue as the funding allows.
Penny Cluse, a popular Burlington eatery, hosts a HANDS fundraiser event every March. For four years “A Show of HANDS” has been the eatery’s signature event. Holly Cluse, owner and HANDS board member, shares, “The event brings artists of all ages together to create and collaborate. Thousands of people in the community see the exhibit throughout the month of March. The wooden Hands, cut out by Matt Gang and artistically decorated by community volunteers and artists, are auctioned off at the closing celebration, which is open to the public, with all proceeds supporting elder Vermonters. We are all looking forward to the fifth annual next March.”
Humphrey is not shy about her appreciation for the 500-plus volunteers who come together to create the magic of providing community for our Vermont seniors. Whether it be the annual gathering at TRuggs Tavern for gift-wrapping fun, volunteering at the Elks dinner, delivering holiday meals or being part of the annual Penny Cluse fundraiser, she radiates appreciation for her “angels” who help to make it all happen. “It’s simple kindness that is not that complicated. Re- markable volunteers and partnerships make it happen. I feel so grate- ful to live in Vermont and work with people and organizations here who are committed to making change.”
The theme of food and gathering continues as Humphrey expands her latest program, establishing gardening programs at senior hous- ing, long-term nursing centers and community gardens. This pro- gram creates opportunities for seniors to get their hands back in the dirt and grow some of their own food. HANDS partners with the Vermont Community Garden Network to provide five gardening programs and is making a special effort to include older veterans and older new Americans.
One program, “HANDS in the Dirt,” with famed Vermont gar- dening enthusiast Charlie Nardozzi, has seen tremendous success with the veteran population, creating connections and a positive down-to-earth activity. Joshua Gerasimof, Burlington Peer Support Specialist at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, helps area veterans navigate a path to recovery. A veteran himself, he is supportive of this powerful program that gets veterans outside. As one veteran shared with him: “I used to have a lot of bad memories, but good memories come out at the garden.” Programs at St. Michael’s College and Canal Street Veterans’ Housing are thriving thanks to people like Gerasimof and Nardozzi, who offers his extensive gardening expertise and ever-present enthusiasm.
Nardozzi shares, “HANDS had the vision to see the potential ben- efits of connecting gardening and veterans, and I was inspired to be part of that. This is a good way to serve the underserved, not just by producing food but by creating bonds among themselves in the community.” Gerasimof adds, “Vermont can make you feel like you are a part of something. It is different here, very special.” They represent two of a collective group of supportive partners that include Burl- ington Parks and Rec, Camp Johnson, COTS, St. Michael’s College, Vermont Community Garden Network and Veterans Administration that bring programming to each of these locations.
A thread that weaves so beautifully through an organization that finds countless ways to embrace our seniors is community, whether at a table sharing a delicious meal, a visit to a home, or in the dirt growing food. As Megan Humphrey reminds us, it takes a village of caring people to make this community happen. HANDS will continue to make our communities stronger and vital by ensuring that our seniors share in Vermont’s bounty with companionship and love. Interested in helping this year or making a donation to this special organization? Visit Handsvt.org, or contact Megan Humphrey at handsvt@gmail. com. It takes the smallest gesture to make the biggest difference.
Laurie Caswell Burke was truly inspired by this amazing organization that gathers a village of compassionate volunteers to brighten the lives of older Vermonters.