‘Twas the night before Christmas – or somewhere around that time – and all through the Providence VA Medical Center, the Voluntary Service staff was searching for ways to help Veterans who were having a hard time affording gifts for their children.

Donna Russillo was trying to organize a grass-roots effort by VA employees to “adopt” Veteran families in need. Russillo, chief of Voluntary Service, and Erica Madaus, a social worker with the Homeless Veteran Program, developed the Giving Tree. As a result,  they’re able to provide Christmas gifts for those families’ children.

In the photo above, Russillo hands a donated toy to Laurie Harris, a social worker with Transition and Care Management.

At first glance, the Giving Tree looks like a traditional holiday decoration. Closer inspection reveals it to be decorated with paper ornaments identifying the ages, genders, sizes and wish lists of the children of Veterans in need.

The families are referred to as Family #1, #2, #3, etc., to protect their privacy. As a result, only the social worker knows the families names. VA staff can choose a family to sponsor either individually or as part of a group by selecting an ornament and notifying the associated social worker.

Anonymous Navy Veteran: “What Christmas should be”

Word of mouth spread and more Veterans asked to participate. The response was outgrowing the medical center employees’ ability to support the demand. From this, “Sailor Claus” was borne.

Sailor Claus is a retired Navy Vietnam Veteran who wishes to remain anonymous. He was waiting for his appointment at the medical center when he heard about the effort. He did some digging, found his way to Russillo’s office and asked her why no one had told him about it.

Laurie Harris, social worker with Transition and Care Management, reviews her list of Veteran families in need.

“This man has a huge heart and is a true testament to what the spirit of Christmas should be,” said Russillo. “He doesn’t want any thanks or recognition, but he has left an indelible mark on the hearts and lives of all those he has touched with his generosity.”

Veteran families wishing to participate in the Giving Tree must go through their social worker and be in financial need. Once the cut-off date for the Giving Tree has passed, VA employees and volunteers continue to identify more Veteran families in need.

This is where Sailor Claus comes in. Sailor Claus spends countless hours in the months leading up to Christmas collecting toys. Volunteers give those toys to those who were unable to participate in the Giving Tree.

“He never gets to see the Veterans with tears in their eyes when they realize their children will have bikes, dollhouses and remote-control cars,” added Russillo.

Children and the magic of Christmas

“I’m sure he doesn’t fully realize just how these holiday miracles affect the lives of his fellow Veterans. Between his generosity and that of our VA employees participating in the Giving Tree, many children who may not otherwise be able to will get to experience the magic of Christmas morning.”

Sailor Claus mobilizes the southeastern Massachusetts business community to provide gifts for the children. This is his fifth year helping his brother and sister Veterans in need. Every year, the effort grows. In 2018, he provided more than $80,000 in gifts for 254 Veteran families served by the Providence VA Medical Center.

This story is courtesy Providence VA Medical Center Public Affairs. The photos are courtesy Winfield Danielson.

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Published on Dec. 25, 2019

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One Comment

  1. Mary P. Feitelberg January 18, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    What a joy it was to see this today! All of us who’ve had the privilege of supporting this wonderful man have learned so much from him. He’s the real deal — and so are Donna Russillo, Deb Veasey, and all their colleagues and volunteers at the Providence VA’s Voluntary Service office. A phenomenal operation run by an incredibly hard-working, dedicated lady. Just like Sailor Claus, you do great credit to the veterans you so love.

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