Wrapping Presence

This article appeared in Nouveau magazine, December 2004

Wrapping Presence: Where Giving is Receiving

We’ve often heard it said that when God closes a door, he opens a window. And that when we truly give from our hearts, without expecting acknowledgement or reward for sharing our gifts, we receive far more in return than we’ve ever thought possible. Such has been the case for Marne Kies Dietterich, an elder of Doylestown Presbyterian Church in Doylestown, PA. Upon the death of her parents, Marne was determined to turn her grief into something positive for others who today find themselves in a situation similar to that of her aging mother nine years ago.

Christmas Eve, 1966
Maggie & Jack, the annual Silent Night duet
Christmas Eve 1966

In 1993, Marne spent five days before the Christmas holidays with her mother, who lived the last two and a half years of her life in a nursing home in suburban Chicago. She decorated her mother’s room, filled a stocking, and was preparing to return home to her husband and children in Pennsylvania when her mother made a very disturbing statement. When asked, “Mom, who do you think will come and visit you on Christmas?” her mother answered, “Oh, I hope no one comes…they’re going to bring me things, and it’s one more reminder that I’m now useless. I don’t get to make any decisions, I no longer have any control over my life, and I don’t feel like a complete person. I am never giving…I’m always saying thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Marne was taken aback. Her mother had raised three children, with her husband, Jack (who had died seven years prior), had had many loyal friends, had been an eager volunteer, and had given generously to others for her whole life. But now at the holidays her mother was sad! Marne suddenly came up with the perfect idea–help her mother shop for gifts.

Maggie and Jack, February 1972
Maggie & Jack, February 1972

Marne changed her flight plans and the nurses helped her mother, Maggie, into Marne’s rental car. She drove to stores her mother had frequented for many years. When the shopkeepers learned that Mrs. Kies was in the car in front of their stores, they enthusiastically came out to greet her. The store managers and Marne selected items for Maggie to choose from, letting her shop without leaving the car.

Gifts piled high on Maggie’s lap, the two shoppers returned to the nursing home, and the excited nurses eagerly rushed out to greet them. Maggie gushed, “Hello ladies. I’ve been shopping!”

Marne wrapped the presents, they watched the Lawrence Welk Christmas special on television (something Maggie and Jack had done annually), and reminisced about the holidays. They spoke of how happy visitors would be when they received the gifts Maggie had selected especially for them. She felt useful once again. “Oh,” Maggie sighed, “it’s just like it used to be.”

The following year Maggie was not able to travel, so Marne “brought the store to her.” Merchants gave Marne items for her mother to choose from, and she lovingly selected gifts for long-time friends, looking forward to the happiness she would give to her Christmas-day visitors.

Maggie’s health steadily declined, and she died in Marne’s arms on her eighty-fifth birthday, in July, 1995. As the holidays approached that year, Marne knew her mother couldn’t have been the only person in a nursing home who felt the way Maggie had. She telephoned Heritage Towers, an extended-care facility in Doylestown, and asked if they had residents who might enjoy “shopping” for special people in their lives. Using the money she would have spent to visit her mother, Marne provided gifts for six residents to give to others. Together they wrapped the presents, ate holiday cookies, and put handmade decorations on their bedroom doors. The residents were thrilled, and Wrapping Presence was born.

Marne and the social worker introduce<br>  a resident to her Wrapping Buddy
Marne and the social worker introduce
a resident to her wrapping buddy

The next year twenty people participated in the shopping activities, and by the fifth year, Marne was visiting three nursing home facilities with gifts for 120 “shoppers.”

In November 2000, Holly Mullin, the clerk of Doylestown Presbyterian Church’s governing body, saw Marne’s car heaped with gifts and jokingly chastised her for over-shopping. When she learned about Marne’s project, Holly asked if she could help. Her son’s eighth-grade church-school class gathered gifts and wrapping materials, working hard to ensure that the residents had chosen and wrapped their treasures before Christmas.

As the project grew, specific jobs such as buyers, cookie bakers and wrapping buddies evolved. Every resident now shops in a beautifully decorated “store” complete with specially-made signs and store displays. One activity director commented, “You transformed our dining room into an exciting department store, complete with Santa, elves and Christmas memories.”

In January 2001, Marne received a copy of a letter Holly had written to the church’s session and mission committee asking for support for Wrapping Presence. Within three days, Marne’s phone started ringing off the hook and donations poured in.

In 2001, 104 volunteers wrapped more than 1500 gifts for 500 senior citizens living in 10 nursing homes in the Delaware Valley. Everyone agreed that they’d received far more for their efforts than they’d given.

Family treasures all wrapped up
Family treasures all wrapped up

The momentum continues. Wrapping Presence is now supported by a growing corps of 150 dedicated volunteers. Local businesses have donated merchandise; teachers, Girl Scouts and church members of many denominations have joined the effort. In 2004, Wrapping Presence was named Volunteer Group of the Year by PANPHA, an association of nonprofit senior services in Pennsylvania.

Marne feels there is a greater hand in Wrapping Presence. The project that helps residence-bound senior citizens give with joy and dignity at holiday time continues to generate enthusiasm. Helping people cope with feelings of isolation and loss during the holidays is important. Bright spirits like to gather together, and when we do, the joy we receive is beyond description!