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You can be a Christmas Angel

Blanket drive grows and transforms into an annual Christmas morning delivery of joy for lonely seniors

By Ed DuBois

Around ten years ago, a local health care professional, Tennille Popelka, started volunteering at the Buffalo Food Shelf.  She wanted to make a difference in peoples' lives.  Not long after she started volunteering, she met an elderly patient who was very unhappy, and she was also mean and nasty.

Determined to help change the patient's outlook, Tennille made it her mission to "make her like me."

"After a month of her telling me to get out or yelling for a nurse that a kid was in her room, I still kept going back," Tennille recalled.  "I am pretty sure she told me I was stupid, a pain in the butt, annoying, and pretty much anything else along those line."

Tennille came to the realization that the reason the elderly patient was so mean was because she was lonely.  Looking into the problem, Tennille called several nursing homes and discovered that roughly half the residents are alone during the holidays.

Meanwhile, she continued her efforts to get the mean patient to like her.

"I would mail her a birthday card and send her a Christmas card every year.  She would always say, 'Stop sending me this crap in the mail,'" Tennille remembered.

However, somehow Tennille knew the patient was beginning to appreciate the kind gestures.

"After a few years, she finally liked me," Tennille said.

"I started wondering how many other older people were so lonely," she added.

The two were friends about four years.  One day, the patient visited Tennille on her birthday.

"She had two special brownies for me, and she sang 'Happy Birthday,' to me," Tennille said.

The patient who had become a friend passed away two days later.


Christmas Angels started

This experience helped inspire the start of an effort to provide some comfort and joy for lonely senior citizens on Christmas Day.  It is called Christmas Angels.

It began with a blanket drive seven years ago.  The blankets were given to nursing home residents on Christmas morning.

"To see the faces of the seniors at the nursing homes was the most wonderful feeling," Tennille said.

"One of my most favorite holidays is Christmas.  I cannot think of a better way to honor the holidays than to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives," she commented.  "When I stop and really think about all the people who have made a difference in my life, I am overwhelmed with how blessed I have been, but there has always been something missing."


Others joined the cause

The first time she went to the Food Shelf, she had a hopeless feeling.

"The first time I went, I left there and thought, 'I am never going back.  I cannot help all of those people.  I am going to pretend this does not exist,'" Tennille recalled.  "That didn't work.  I kept going back.  I was told I cannot bring anyone home with me."

Christmas Angels became her way to make a difference, and it became a way for many others to also make a difference as more Christmas Angels participants joined her each year on Christmas Day.

"In 2013, we collected enough blankets to give to every resident at Lake Ridge, Sunrise Assisted Living and all the patients at the hospital," Tennille said.  "Lake Ridge wrote a thank-you in the paper talking about how Christmas Angels made a difference."

Last year, 532 gifts were delivered the local nursing homes on Christmas morning.

Two years ago, Tennille asked the Journal-Press to publish a news item about Christmas Angels, inviting people to join the cause.


Students joined, too

"I could not have done this without the community, and my co-workers at the hospital are amazing," said Tennille, who serves a health unit coordinator at the Buffalo Hospital.

Her jobs includes making sure patients are ready for surgery.  She is a Buffalo High School graduate and was a member of the last class at the old high school (now the middle school).

Students from Northwinds Elementary School helped collect blankets last year, and this year, they are doing all the wrapping of Christmas Angels gifts.

Tennille mentioned that efforts are being made to match some of the gifts wrapped by students with their senior citizen pen pals.


Drop sites and needed items

The collection of gifts is underway at several drop sites.  They include: Cub Foods, Kids Haven, BankWest, Ryan Chevrolet, BJ's Deli, Allina Clinics, Buffalo Hospital, Stellis Health in Buffalo, Northwinds Elementary School, and Aadland Electric.

Items that are most wanted include: lotions, lip balm, pony tail holders, grippy socks, women's sweat shirts and sweat pants, and men's sweat shirts and sweat pants (from medium size to 3X).

Some significant private donations to Christmas Angels have been provided by Sue Hutchinson and Kyle Prodoehl, Tennille said.

She has emailed churches, day cares and businesses to ask if they would like to take part in Christmas Angels.

She said a handful of people participated in the first year.  They included hospital staff, her parents and her children (Jackson and Lauren), as well as families in her neighborhood.


Someone visiting

"So many do not realize how our seniors have been forgotten," Tennille said.  "When you think of Christmas, you think of little kids.  You don't think of elderly individuals who are trying to survive off very little each month.  I hope everyone can pitch in and help those who are in need in our community."

Christmas Angels help make sure lonely seniors have someone visiting on Christmas morning.

They are going to attempt providing a Christmas meal at the Golden Living nursing home in Delano.  Northwinds Elementary School students are providing artworks.

"If we pull this off this year, we will try it in other nursing homes next year," Tennille said.

During each Christmas Angels stop at a nursing home, "we mingle and talk."  Participants go from room to room giving gifts and greeting residents.


Someone does care

Tennille said faces light up as lonely seniors realize "someone does care."

"We don't want anyone to be forgotten," she commented.

The stops at the nursing homes last from about 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

"The kids (among the Christmas Angels) are dying to get home and open their presents, but there are no complaints," Tennille said.

They understand the purpose of the deliveries and the joy they provide.


Be a friend

If you know of a senior not in a nursing home who could benefit from a gift from Christmas Angels, please email Tennille at

"Life is fragile, and we never know just how long our own time on this earth will extend.  It is my hope that we would each take the opportunity to thank each person who makes a difference in our lives.  Be a friend, even when they don't want to be yours," Tennille said.



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