Anne Elisabeth Suter is giving herself a special Christmas present this year. She plans to spend part of the Christmas holiday with a group of children she has never seen before - both to share her love for children with them and because she misses her nieces and nephews back home in Switzerland.
Ms. Suter, a literary agent from Switzerland, has lived in New York for three years now, representing European children's book publishers on the American book market. For the last three Christmases, she has either returned home to Zurich or been invited to share Christmas with American friends. But this year she decided to do something different.
''I am in the children's book business, but I never see any children,'' she explains, sitting in her apartment/office overlooking the East River. ''I would like to know some children here in New York, to find out what they are thinking.'' So she called the Children's Aid Society and volunteered her services over Christmas. ''Foreigners are made to feel so welcome here, much more than they would be living in a European city. This is one way of showing my gratitude,'' she says.
The New York Children's Aid Society organized two Christmas programs this year. The first took place on Dec. 20 at the Carter Hotel near Times Square, where the entire hotel is now being used to house homeless families. The Children's Aid Society, together with the office of Human Resources, a city agency, organized a Christmas party there, complete with gifts for the needy families and their children. The society also sponsored a Christmas party in a New York City junior high school on Dec. 23.
For people who have come to think of Christmas as a busy round of gift-buying , parties, and visiting with family and friends, reaching out to those in need can provide just the sense of true Christmas giving that they may have longed for. And for those who may be far from their own families at Christmas, this kind of caring participation can be a way for them to feel the warmth and appreciation they may be missing.
Stephen Ivas is the branch manager of the Century Bank & Trust Company in Burlington, Mass., a suburb of Boston. His parents live in the area, and he will be spending part of Christmas Day with them. But what he is looking forward to even more is his participation in the Christmas home visiting program sponsored by an organization called Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly.
''It's not that I think I'm doing something nice,'' Mr. Ivas explains. ''But when you see (volunteers) coming in - families giving up their time - that gives me an uplift.''
Little Brothers in Boston has approximately 30 volunteers who visit the elderly on a regular basis throughout the year. During holidays like Christmas, the numbers swell to about 300, according to Ray McNeice, assistant director of volunteers. This includes people who cook the meals that are brought to the elderly in their homes, as well as those who actually visit them. This Christmas the organization plans to visit about 200 elderly people in the Greater Boston area - people who might not otherwise see anyone on Christmas Day or who would have no other way to enjoy a special holiday meal.
''I try to make the (volunteer) families feel at ease,'' says Mr. Ivas. ''For example, there is a family with two girls and a boy who come every holiday. The first time they came to volunteer, the kids didn't want to do it. So I talked to them. After they came back from their first visit, the kids were ecstatic. They wanted to do another visit. I get a lot out of that.
''Little Brothers is different from Meals on Wheels,'' Mr. Ivas continues. ''Bringing food is a part of it, but the visiting is very important. And the volunteers benefit too, by getting to know older people. Some of the kids may not have grandparents. They get some insight out of it. They learn that an older person is not someone to be afraid of. And some of these elderly people never see little kids. So it's a family-type thing - a large family.''
How does Mr. Ivas manage to find time for volunteering during the hectic holiday season? ''I'm organized. All my shopping is done three weeks in advance.''
And would he still participate in Little Brothers if he had his own family? ''Oh yeah,'' is the immediate reply. ''I don't think it's something you'd want to stop. It's fun. It's work, but you enjoy it. I wouldn't do it if it weren't fun.''
Rosie's Place is an emergency shelter and drop-in center in Boston for homeless women who are either alone or who have children with them. During the year it operates with a regular staff of 130 volunteers and 10 paid workers. At present Rosie's Place can provide beds for 13 women; new facilities will expand this number to 20. In addition, between 60 and 80 women are given supper every night.
Angela O'Callahan is coordinator of volunteers at Rosie's Place. She is enthusiastic about the large numbers of people who volunteer to help out and about the ''very elaborate'' plans they have for Christmas this year.
''We're going to be serving a morning brunch, a traditional Christmas dinner, and a light supper of turkey sandwiches in the evening,'' she says.
Ms. O'Callahan was asked whether additional volunteers have come forward to help at Christmas.
''Lots and lots of people,'' she replies. ''For instance, one woman called yesterday. She said, 'I have three small children, and they're going to be in day care on Christmas Eve. I have plans for Christmas Day, but what can I do on Christmas Eve to help?' That's the sort of people who call up.''
Another woman called the shelter and said, ''I'm going to have four hours free on Christmas Day, because our family is having dinner early. Can I come and help out?''
One might have thought that for the most part the volunteers at Rosie's Place would be retired people, who may not have very busy schedules. But Ms. O'Callahan explains that is not the case.
''Oh, no. They're not retired people,'' she says. ''The average age of volunteers is between 30 and 40. We have people who help out all year round, not just at Christmas. They come in after work, after school, on weekends. People contribute their time all the time. You know the old saying, 'If you want something done, ask a busy person.' ''