Echoing the spirited words of the loveable Buddy the elf, “Santa! I know him!”
Well, maybe I don’t know the Santa, but I do know one of his helpers, and she certainly sums up the giving spirit of the holiday season.
Jesse Griffin is a self-proclaimed second-rate angel of Truckee who has touched the lives of scores of senior citizens — although most probably don’t even know her name. Endlessly effervescent and upbeat, Griffin is more likely to be recognized by her alter-ego’s nomenclature: Clarence Oddbody-as2, as in “angel second-rate.” And despite her “second-rate” claim, Griffin is a model elf if I ever met one.
“I want Truckee to feel like Bedford Falls,” Griffin told Moonshine Ink, referencing the fictitious small town from holiday film classic It’s a Wonderful Life. “Nobody’s left behind. The people [are] why I do it. I live with 65 people and this is my Christmas present to them.”
When Griffin landed at the Truckee Donner Senior Apartments 14 years ago, the Christmas Wish Box was already underway. Residents would write their wishes on a slip of paper and drop it in a designated box atop the piano in the apartment complex dining room. Collected until Dec. 14, wishes can be for anything — pet food, clothes, appliances, basic necessities.
“Most of these people, they live on anywhere from a little over $600 a month to [an] average of $800 a month,” Griffin said. “Even with subsidized rent, the cost of food, the cost of copays for medical, gas … with what’s happening with the [cost of living] raise, it’s getting tougher and tougher. So, a lot of people are on food stamps, and that doesn’t cut it.”
This will mark Griffin’s 12th year at the reins, playing the role of Santa’s number one helper after taking over from the original creators, Wally Pascoe and Art Zabroski, and Griffin’s predecessor, Patty Bena.
“I started with nothing — no names, nothing … but I built it up,” Griffin recalled. “I put the word out — help!”
And help came indeed. Mountain High BNI; Noon Rotary; The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe; Stone’s Country Tires; Lahontan Community Foundation; Gratitudes; and countless other groups have supported the cause through donations of food, gifts, and money, and more importantly, time.
“At first we were just going door to door. Then the police got involved and they would deliver packages. I never got to see [the residents’ faces],” Griffin said. “Then I decided to [have] a party because I wanted to see their faces, too.”
It started small, growing a little with each passing year adding more volunteers and more organizations each time.
The project has seen highs and lows over the years, particularly in 2008 during the recession, “when everything crashed and burned,” Griffin said. “We went … from TV sets to cameras … to $25 gift cards because people were hurting.”
This year, the Christmas Wish Box is extending to the Stocking Stuffer Project — little gifts to make Christmas very special for someone, such as gift cards, CDs, gloves, socks, or other small gestures.
But the giving season doesn’t end at the holidays. People are in need year-round, and Griffin’s army of elves are ready to roll at the ring of the phone, whether it be washing windows, decorating trees, wintertime snow removal, basic pet care like shots and nail cutting, or Safeway and Save Mart donating food.
One August day a few years back, a resident’s 40-year-old microwave blew up. Griffin wondered how many other residents were using antiquated, possibly unsafe small appliances, so she had each resident write their oldest appliance on a piece of paper and reached out to Doug Wright of Mountain Hardware in Truckee. “He got all new appliances for these people — small appliances, toasters, heaters, microwaves,” she rejoiced.
Right now, the senior apartments are in need of bigger things like their picnic table being sanded and stained and new furniture for the common area and dining room.
Griffin lamented the amount of wealth that Truckee and the greater Lake Tahoe area sees coming through on a regular basis, especially with the percentage of second and even third homeowners, compared to the financial struggles of some of the residents of the senior apartments.
“It angers me that they don’t get involved,” she said, noting that although they’re not full-timers, they are still part of the community and should be willing to give back to the people who have served them over the years.
“We’re the service industry,” she continued, referencing her fellow apartment residents. “We came here because we were unique in the fact that we wanted to ski, didn’t want to work a 9-to-5 job. We served these people; now we’re retired … Because of the cost of living here, we’re in trouble.”
Though most of the people in the apartments are struggling to make ends meet, they, too, would like to give back. One way they’re doing this is by collecting loose change and depositing it into a jar on Griffin’s kitchen counter. “Except quarters,” says Griffin with a hearty laugh. “Quarters are for laundry.”
She’s got a friend who will roll the collected coins and cash them in at the bank. The goal is to be able to donate children’s books to the library as a gift from the seniors.
“This is the kind of thing I want to see here,” Griffin stressed. “I want them to know that yes, most of these people … are very thankful, and we try to say thank you … in small ways. We give back. We don’t have our hand out all the time. I mean we’re grateful for what we get and we understand that we’re in a very special place.”
The amount of change collected will be announced at the Dec. 14 party, during which the seniors will have their Christmas wishes come true. “It’s the hottest ticket in town,” Griffi n laughed. “Let me tell ya, it’s standing room only.”
And the day is always filled with surprises, like when Leticia Aguilar, owner of Lety’s Preschool and Daycare, brought in scarves for all the residents — hand-knitted by her family members. Or when North Tahoe High School home economics teacher Laura Roberts brought in cookies baked by her students — over 7,200 of them. Or the man from Incline Village who once brought complete turkey dinners for all the residents.
“I would like to get more people involved in this thing. Match them to a senior,” Griffin said. “It’s about paying it forward, and that’s important. I want to bring the magic back.”
To grant a senior’s wish or stuff their stocking, call (530) 587-5152 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Main Image Caption: SANTA’S HELPERS: A few of Griffin’s fellow elves spread holiday cheer to Truckee seniors. Courtesy photo