Some celebrations just warm your heart because they bring together people from so many different parts of our community - and from places beyond as well.
I felt that warm feeling in December when I sat between the two holiday trees at the Hospice and Home Care of Juneau Light-Up-a-Life table in Nugget Mall. I feel it even more now that I've found out how many people were involved in creating and carrying on this precious Juneau holiday tradition.
This year was the Light-Up-a-Life celebration's eighth year. More than 500 individuals and families purchased tree ornaments to help support Juneau's Hospice and Home Care and to honor loved ones who've passed away or people still living that they wanted to recognize for bringing special brightness to their lives.
The event raised upward of $24,000, topping last year's record, but more than that it brought moments of joy, even though they often sprang from grief, to virtually everyone who contributed. More still, it celebrated the contributions of volunteers who brought, as gifts of the heart, a variety of skills and talents to make the event a success.
Volunteers designed and mailed out hundreds of cards soliciting donations just after Thanksgiving. Volunteers cut and decorated the hundreds of stars and candles that were offered for sale. Volunteers set up and decorated the trees-expanded to two this year to accommodate the increased numbers of ornaments.
More than 65 volunteers sat at the table in two-hour shifts, chatting with passersby, helping people locate their own ornaments and those honoring people they knew, and providing information about hospice. Volunteers represented the hospice at the site more than 40 hours a week for five weeks.
"I know many touching stories were heard by the volunteers that manned the table," said Tammy Antoniadis, one of three coordinators of the event. "For many people, this was a form of honoring those they loved in a meaningful way. One family told me that they so appreciated the ability to keep the memory of their loved one alive by putting their name on a white star. They felt bad they couldn't afford to donate more. I told them that the amount did not matter; the fact that they were keeping their loved one alive by honoring them was what mattered. They were so appreciative that it was heartwarming."
"One day a lady came by to buy a remembrance for her father and mother, who had died in California," said Peggy Ann Langlois, who volunteered for several shifts at the table. "During some tough times afterward, she had sought help in Juneau with some ★★CJ bereavement groups, and she said it really helped a lot. She seemed to especially enjoy putting her parents' names on a star and decorating it to match their personalities. We talked for about an hour. It meant a lot to her and a lot to me."
"Another day a young girl came by and said hospice had helped her family through the death of a loved one. She donated $5 and said the best gift was having Hospice there when she and her family needed help."
Among other people volunteers talked with was an 11-year-old with her grandma, who found her mom's star and looked at it for a long time. After leaving to shop, she brought her grandma back to the tree to look at the star one more time before going home.
Many donors who purchased ornaments by mail wrote memories of the loved ones they honored: "B. was such a rare lady," one wrote. "Her steady, reliable work helping others set the bar for all of us."
"Please honor the entire family," another wrote. "They have done so much for Juneau."
Other donors honored hospice along with those they loved. "I miss all of you," one woman wrote. "I will never forget your loving care. We couldn't have gotten through that terrible time without you." Another wrote, "I knew you folks did great things to help people, but I was still amazed at the level of care you provided for our family. Thank you!" And one expressed his feelings more simply: He wrote, "Hospice and Home Care nurses are Juneau's angels."
"Anyone can get involved," Antoniadis said, as we talked about how important Light-Up-a-Life has become to both donors and volunteers. "We need different people's talents and abilities. Even if you've only got an hour or two, you have time to put together 50 ornaments and you'll know that you're contributing."
I asked Tammy why she was willing to donate so many hours to the project. "For two reasons," she said. "For one thing, it's a way to help others express their memories of loved ones no longer living and living people they truly appreciate. Someone sees a star or a candle on the tree and they say, 'Oh, I remember her,' or 'Ha! That's the guy who always made me laugh.' That keeps that person's memory alive.
"Secondly, I'm paying forward. We're all going to die someday. This is just a way of helping others. We're all going to need help someday."
Light-Up-a-Life is one of many services and events sponsored throughout the year by Hospice and Home Care of Juneau. If you would like to learn more or would like to volunteer, contact Sara Chambers, volunteer coordinator, at 463-6106, or firstname.lastname@example.org. or Jean Jasmine, bereavement counselor, at 463-6134, or email@example.com.
Hospice and Home Care of Juneau is a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons regardless of their faith. Marge Hermans Osborn is a Hospice and Home Care of Juneau volunteer.