A welcome distraction, a chance to make someone smile and erase the pain; an opportunity to make a tangible difference – that is the essence of the stocking project. It all began with a phone call from Taira Baughman in November 2011. She had an idea pressing on her heart, a driving need to show love to patients stuck in the hospital at Christmastime. Inspired by a song, Taira dubbed it “Operation Love” and invited her friends (and their friends) to help carry out the mission. Within just three weeks, volunteers in 13 states had signed on. It has bloomed over the last six years in incredible ways. To date, more than 16,000 stockings have been delivered.
This marks our 6th year of loving patients through it at Christmastime.
“The time spent with the people in the hospital gives them a chance to focus on something other than what they were going through,” the photographer observed (Clark and Company). His pictures are absolutely worth a thousand words all on their own. Seeing it through the eyes of deliverers reveals yet a deeper story. This project has often been labeled as essential medicine for the heart, mind, and soul – for both the giver and the receiver.
Here are 10 reasons we volunteer for the stocking project, year after year.
Feeding the lonely: Like food to a hungry soul, Christmas music and stuffed stockings quench a thirst for what is missing inside a very difficult journey. Patients get emotional because they either live alone or their families from out of town are not able to be here.
Power of touch: Elderly patients are especially touched and emotionally affected, according to our team nurse. “One elderly and confused patient enjoyed our visit so much that the next day and even two days later, he was still talking excitedly about the night with Santa. Santa Claus and the Carolers touch the depth of memories long tucked away. Christmas as a child to adulthood is apparently an experience we never forget.”
Presence is the present: Another elderly individual refused the Carolers, so Santa and the nurse paid her a quiet visit with stocking in-hand. She cried happy tears. Yet another wanted to eat first, so we waited to see her last. Her eyes opened wider as she gasped with a child-like grin in seeing Santa and the Carolers.
Paying it forward: Just as our volunteers have fought, are fighting, or coming alongside someone battling cancer, others want to pay the love forward. One patient’s wife asked the nurse to make sure to get our contact information. She was already looking toward next year’s project and what she needs to do to be able to help out.
Worth the wait: One patient was struggling financially and emotionally due to health issues of her and her husband. Though she was already discharged, she requested permission to wait for our arrival. The lift to their spirits was plain to see, and oh what a joy it was for all to witness.
Lasting impact: How much more apparent can it be than the patient who later carried his stocking on the IV pole, as he walked around the unit, trying to keep “Christmas cheers” alive?
Bedside Santa: One volunteer said, “There were so many things I loved … the way Santa knelt beside the patients’ beds, holding their hand as they listened to us singing. The older gentleman who could barely lift his head, eyes closed, and yet he was mouthing the words to the song.”
Selfless at heart: “Knowing three of our teammates are currently being treated for cancer and still they generously gave of themselves to touch the hearts of others in a difficult journey; that struck me the most this year.” She’s been volunteering since the stocking project’s inception.
Tears of thanksgiving: “The patients’ tears of joy amid struggle was most noteworthy for me,” a volunteer pastor said in reflecting on this delivery.
Parting gifts: “I have Lou Gehrig’s disease and I’m dying. You just made my night,” a patient said to us, his eyes welling up with tears. Parting gifts such as this will remain as footprints within our hearts.
Taira Baughman did not want any oncology patient to feel alone or left out during the Christmas season. It is important to note that chemotherapy affects cells in the immune system, so oncologists may try to regulate other diseases with the treatment – in addition to cancer – such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, and Lou Gehrig’s Disease/ALS, and rare blood disorders.
Little did she know (then), she was not simply uniting friends to show God’s love. She was actually building her legacy. Operation Love took hold in people’s hearts and has been replicated every year since 2011, in various locations throughout the nation. Some will make it through the cancer battle, while others will leave indelible marks in the wake of it. Taira’s mark became a legacy of hope for patients – timeless medicine for the heart, mind, and soul. We are honored to have a growing army of care, ready and equipped to love them through it at Christmas, and beyond.
This little video diary also provides for lasting memories of our time spent with the patients at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center in Florida.