By Holly Bridges
Major Darren Steele would be happy. The Canadian Forces Public Affairs Officer (who served almost
three years with Air Force Public Affairs in Ottawa) would be happy to know his dream of helping lonely seniors at Christmas is living on. Maj Steele was killed in a motorcycle accident in Colorado Springs, Colorado last June while serving with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Public Affairs.
Immediately following his passing, many people wondered if his “Christmas Smiles for Seniors” program would continue. It is, thanks to a core group of volunteer organizers calling themselves “Team Darren” who have stepped up to keep the program going, and a legion of more than 1,000 elves who are committed to seeing it continue.
“With the loss of our Head Elf in June 2006 we needed another approach,” says Dannette McLeod. “No one person could ever fill Darren’s shoes so we formed ‘Team Darren’.”
In fact, this year, the program is bigger and better than ever with seniors from 50 homes in Ottawa receiving more than 1,500 gifts. Christmas Smiles for Seniors gives gifts to seniors who have no one at Christmas time. Many seniors have no family while others have, sadly, been abandoned. It is hard enough to be alone at any time, but Christmas is the worst. The gift these seniors receive through the program is often their only gift.
Many hands make light work
“Darren loved his Christmas Smiles for Seniors,” said Ms. McLeod of Maj Steele’s devotion
to the program. She personally saw that devotion first-hand two years ago when she and a small group of Maj Steele’s friends ran the program while he was deployed to Afghanistan for six months over the Christmas period. “Darren believed that if everyone did a little bit, we could collectively make a big difference. ‘Many hands make light work’ he would often say.”
Captain Serge Duguay, an Air Force Communications and Electronics Engineering Officer in Ottawa, and his wife, Master Corporal Caroline Duguay, an Air Reservist, have been participating in the program since
“My wife has had the chance to actually deliver the gifts in person and visit with the seniors,” says Capt Duguay. “This first-hand experience really hits home on why we do this. The reaction of some of the residents is very touching. My mother was in a home for the last 10 years of her life, her illness requiring constant medical supervision. However, being a mother of 11 brought her lots of visitors. During these visits, I realized how many of the seniors were lonely. If a few dollars and a little bit of time can bring them a little joy at Christmas, then why not?”
He was lonely too
Maj Steele got the idea for the program in 2000 after moving to Ottawa. “Legend has it that Darren had recently moved to Ottawa, had no family here and a small group of friends,” says Ms. McLeod.
“It was nearing Christmas, and Darren was feeling a little down, but as fortune would have it, he lived and worked in close proximity to a few seniors residences. He considered the situation of elders in our community who had far less than he did. No family, no support network of friends, and many of these souls with very limited means. Darren contacted a few of these nearby residences to research the possibility of ensuring these elders knew someone WAS thinking about them and a passion ignited. Darren’s premise was simple – no one should be forgotten at Christmas.”
Gifts from Afghanistan
This year, Ms. McLeod has even received gifts for seniors from a woman in Wisconsin who heard about the program on the radio over the Internet, as well as a Canadian Forces member deployed to Afghanistan. “This member will warm the hearts of seniors from the other side of the globe. I will likely never meet this person, but every year, we work together from wherever she is posted – she either sends a cheque or like this year, special gifts from afar.”
Although the program involves many members of the Canadian Forces, both military and civilian, anyone can become involved, anywhere in Canada, the United States or elsewhere. If you would like more information about Christmas Smiles for Seniors, how to start a program in your community, or learn more about how to get involved, visit www.christmassmiles.com
The members of “Team Darren” are: Dannette McLeod, Stacey Doraty, Roxanne Coupal, Joyce Dumont, Soo Samler, France Isabelle, Andréa Rhéaume, Caroline Pollock, Holly Bridges and Major Mary Lee.