“You scored big time, girl,” Wanda Watson said to Virginia “Jenny” Simonelli as her friend unwrapped several festive sweatshirts and tops that were specifically picked for the 98-year-old resident of the St. Francis Home.
Throughout the dining rooms where residents gathered, similar “ooh” and “aah” moments occurred at the annual dinner and gift-giving event hosted by the Santa Ana Police Department.
Since 2006, pandemic years notwithstanding, residents of St. Francis Home, a non-profit home run for the last 78 years by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of Mexico, have been recipients of a hot dinner, a visit from Santa Claus, and holiday gifts. In its second year back since the pandemic nearly shuttered the assisted living home, the event continued to show growth and greater happiness among the residents.
With a capacity of 90 and a prepandemic average of about of 70 residents and nuns in an adjacent convent, the population at St. Francis fell to 20 during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic as many residents went to hospitals, care facilities, or returned to their families.
Last year, the dinner was held for 25 residents and nuns and this year 32 attended the festivities in the home’s dining room.
“This year is much better,” said Sister Elia Caro, the administrator and superior at the home and convent. “Last year, we were still afraid. Life is coming back.”
Mary Mintie, 64, who has been a resident for nine years, said she sensed a greater levity in this year’s gathering.
“It’s beginning to pick up,” she said. “There’s a lot more noise in the room than last year.”
One of the newer arrivals, Diana Antoinette Neal, 80, was surprised by the scale of the event.
“I figured it would be something small, but look at this,” she said, gesturing to the decorated tables and large collection of gift bags.
“We waited all year for this,” Sr. Caro said. “This is our Christmas.”
The event was started by Commander Sandy Gatt, and Forensic Supervisor Jessica Durham asked to bring back the dinner after the pandemic. Although she organized last year’s event, this was the first time she was able to attend.
“It’s really nice to interact with the seniors and to serve,” she said. “This is one of my favorite activities. The holidays are all about giving and celebrating.”
Durham said too often seniors are left out of the festivities, which is why she takes special satisfaction in the St. Francis event. Durham’s first time attending was not without a hitch. Although residents are typically treated to catered ham, turkey, and sides, due to a mix-up caterers had no food ready when police arrived to pick up the meals. However, no strangers to crisis management, the police rallied, buying a stack of pizzas and preparing salads and soups to go along with the slices. There were also pies, cake, and cookies for dessert. After serving the meals, the police, personnel, and volunteers sat down and shared meals with the residents.
Each of the residents was adopted by a member of the Santa Ana Police Department. The seniors turned in a list of three requested gifts and received at least one; most received more. In addition the residents, along with the nuns, all received goody bags with socks, lotion, lip balm, puzzle books, toiletries and blankets.
Two of the volunteers — Kaitlyn Crippen, 31, and her mom, Melissa — were attending for the first time. They arrived with Senior Corrections Officer John Crippen, aka Santa.
“I wanted to see what it was like,” Kaitlyn Crippen said. “My dad talks about it every year. He loves doing it.”
Melissa Crippen, who dressed as Mrs. Claus, enjoyed her experience.
“I was always told how exciting it was,” she said. “I wanted to come out and see all the smiles.”
Resident Simonelli was overwhelmed by her bounty all the way down to a portable checkers game in her stocking and the gift boxes themselves.
“I like these boxes. I can use them next year,” she said.
Watson, 90, seemed happier with Simonelli’s delight than her own similar gift, admitting, “I wanted a nightgown.”
However, she was satisfied with the event overall, saying, “I think it’s marvelous.”
Greta Douglas, a longtime resident, said she didn’t ask for much from Santa Claus this year.
“Maybe some tops,” she said. “Mainly for family, love, and peace, more spiritual things.”