While Christine Long was completing her master’s practicum at the VA hospital in Tampa four years ago, she noticed the Angel Tree in the lobby.

“When I saw the Angel Tree, I thought that’s such a good idea,” she recalled.

Long is a nurse manager in the Community Living Center at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System. When she returned to work in Acute Care at C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Clinic, she immediately contacted a social worker. She was curious to see if she could sponsor families facing financial hardships during the holidays.

Long’s wish came true. A family with seven kids had recently relocated to the Bay Pines VA area from Alaska. During enrollment, their Transition and Case Management (TCM) social worker discovered the family was having financial difficulties due to the move.

The family spent all of their available money on gas and other relocation expenses. The Veteran and his wife didn’t have enough funds to provide a Christmas for their children.

When Long and her fellow nurses in Acute Care heard there was a Veteran in need, they jumped at the chance to help. “We bought bikes and helmets for everyone,” she said.

Fourth year helping Veteran families enjoy Christmas

This year is the fourth year Long and nurses from Bay Pines VA have provided gifts for Veterans and their families. Starting small with the family of nine from Alaska, the number of families helped has grown each year.

“The second year, we helped 15 families. The following year, we were able to help 29 families.” Long’s goal this year was to help 35 families. Only 19 families requested assistance this year but some of the families are larger than past years.

Pictured above are the Bay Pines VA nurses, social workers and Volunteer Services employees who worked together this year to provide a merry Christmas for Veterans and their families.

Bay Pines VA employee loads a bicycle into a Veteran’s car during the drive-thru gift distribution.

To provide families with gifts each year, Long has an entire team excited to help her. To identify families who need help, social workers reach out to the Veterans they support.

“I go through my entire caseload and make a call to each Veteran to see if they need assistance,” said social worker Rose Attardo. Each year she gets her entire TCM team involved. The group reaches out to their Veterans to see how they are doing and if they need any help to make the holidays happy for their children.

“Social workers from the Caregiver Support Program also reach out to Veterans and their families to see if they need support,” Attardo said.

VA nurse manager Christine Long

Voluntary Services and American Legion participate

After social workers contact Veterans, they compile a list of families for Long. The list includes info about the kids, their Santa wish-list and their hobbies, to help make gift buying easier. Long then recruits her fellow nurses to help get the gifts, assigning each department a family.

Other members who help Long in her quest to help Veterans are Bay Pines VA Volunteer Services and the American Legion, Department of Florida.

“If this were a normal year, we would have passed out the gifts at an indoor, sit-down spaghetti dinner hosted by the American Legion,” Long explained. “Since they couldn’t host the dinner due to the coronavirus, American Legion provided each family a $50 Publix gift card so they could purchase their own holiday meal.”

Following CDC guidelines, Long and her team set up an outdoor drive-thru to pass out gifts. Staggered family arrival times limited the number of individuals at the pick-up site.

Giving back is in the family

Once you find out about Long’s family, you won’t be surprised she started this annual gift-giving event. Most of the men in her family served in the military – grandfathers, father, son, brothers, cousins.

“My cousin was an Army paratrooper. He died serving his county in Afghanistan,” she said. Her paternal grandfather served in World War II, receiving a Purple Heart. All seven of his sons served in the military, too.

“Military service is close to my heart,” she explained. “I understand what these families sacrifice. I love to be able to give back.”

This sentiment is true for all the employees who work at Bay Pines VA. In keeping with President Lincoln’s promise – caring for Veterans is not just our mission, but our passion.

“We don’t do it for the recognition,” said Attardo. “We just do it.”

Carla Thomas is the public affairs specialist for the Bay Pines VA.

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Published on Dec. 26, 2020

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