Santa’s little helpers

For Jan and Kelly Caplan, Christmas isn’t just an excuse to see a movie and eat Chinese food.    

Rather, Christmas Day is the time when this mother and daughter duo volunteer at Catholic Charities’ Bishop Edwin M. Conway Residence for seniors near Humboldt Park. The Caplans, of Deerfield, volunteer at the senior residence every Christmas through JUF’s TOV Volunteer Network’s Merry Mitzvot Project, which offers one-time volunteer opportunities for people in the Chicago Jewish community.

On Christmas, all of the volunteers at Conway offer their time and service through TOV’s Merry Mitzvot, according to Maureen Scholle, an administrator at Conway. “It’s wonderful that the residents have human contact on the most important religious day to them," she said. “To think of other people on their holiday is really special. If more people in this world did it, we would have fewer wars."

Conway Residence, which is a program of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, but paid for by public aid, is designed for senior citizens ages 65+–most of them with special needs–on a fixed income, who are experiencing hardships living alone but, at the same time, are autonomous enough not to need a full-service nursing home.

The Caplan women first volunteered at Conway when Kelly–now a senior in high school–was just 10 years old. “Kelly used to bring her recorder and play Christmas Carols for the residents," recalled Jan, of their first years at Conway. “It was a good thing that a lot of the residents are hard-of-hearing when she played those songs."

Seven years later, the Caplans are still joining the Conway residents on Christmas Day. In addition to caroling, they serve Christmas dinner to the residents, and dress as Santa’s elves and help them open gifts. Kelly’s proficiency in Spanish has helped her communicate with one of the seniors, a woman who immigrated to the United States from Spain 70 years ago.

“I know it’s really important to give back and help other people," said Kelly. “My mom always raised me to want to help other people and make a difference in their lives."

In the wintertime, Merry Mitzvot, which began in 1998, fills 800-1000 volunteer slots at organizations, like Conway, across the Chicago metropolitan area. In addition to Merry Mitzvot, the Caplans volunteer year-round through TOV’s Fall and Spring Mitzvah Mania Projects, but they have a special place in their heart for the Conway staff and residents. “We do this to bring cheer to the residents and we do it so we can help give some time off to staff to be with their families on Christmas," said Jan. “It’s really a mitzvah to do this every year."

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