AVERY COUNTY — Once again this year, the Gifts from the Heart trees are up in locations around Avery County. On their branches are 182 paper hearts hanging and waiting, each bearing the needs of an elderly Avery County citizen who could use a little love to get through the cold months of winter.

Even before the pandemic, older adults were at risk for loneliness. During the later years of life, many people also go through additional major changes, such as the loss of friends, spouses or loved ones that could contribute to loneliness. In Avery County it’s common knowledge that the winters can be long, and in some cases people may go for extended periods without visiting or talking with someone, unlike during the summer months, as warmer weather may allow for more activities to keep minds busy.

As the winter cold chill comes into this area, more elderly residents find themselves confined to their homes, and the additional factor of the ongoing pandemic has served in many situations to intensify the confinement.

“Winter is such a hard season for so many of the senior citizens in our county,” Gifts from the Heart committee member Buffy Clark said. “Being able to provide them with these baskets brings them so much joy, especially since many of these individuals have no family to visit them.”

For 31 years, members of the Gifts from the Heart Committee have made it their mission to provide for these needs. Names are collected from various agencies and doctors throughout the county, and the group works to collect gifts to be delivered in time for Valentine’s Day.

The history of the Gifts from the Heart initiative goes back to the Geriatric Committee at Sloop Hospital, and has shown love to thousands of Avery seniors during its years of operation in giving. Some seniors simply and generically request a cheer-up basket, and others ask for specific items such as books and sweaters or daily items like shampoo, conditioner and candy.

Names for donations are collected from various local agencies who refer names of people who are in need. Some of those agencies participating throughout the years have included the Avery County Senior Center and Department of Social Services, as well as patients affiliated with local hospice groups and individuals referred by medical offices.

The way the project works is that a heart with a number of one of the individuals, male or female, as well as requested needs, are included on a tree. A number is used instead of a name in order to provide anonymity, as in some cases individuals do not wish for their names to be publicized. Anyone picking up a heart then records the number on the provided log sheet with their name and phone number. Once the gifts are together, donors can return the items back to where they received the heart by the date on the back of the heart, with the heart placed on the donor’s bag or basket.

Each year, the numbers of those with needs have grown, yet from year to year, the number of donors are not enough to meet the need, while in rare cases hearts are taken from the trees with gift donations forgotten, which equates to an Avery senior that may go without the blessing of receiving a heartfelt donation.

“We want to do something for other people,” GFTH organizer Rachel Deal said. “It’s a gift from your heart for other people.”

Deal described the joy people express when receiving the gifts. Many of the people who receive gifts from the program are unable to leave their homes.

“We want to see people enjoy life a little bit more, and this is one way of doing it,” Deal said. “The little things are the things that make the difference.”

According to the committee, if donors find themselves unable to fill a heart, they are asked to call the telephone number listed on the heart and make it known, so that someone else will have the opportunity to fill that heart’s request or provided a monetary donation. Committee members also state that fewer of the hearts are taken by a younger generation, and encourage younger individuals who are able to do so to also take part in this program of meeting basic needs.

For more information on Gifts from the Heart, email Clark at giftsfromtheheartc@gmail.com, or call (828) 260-5208. Gifts are to be returned to the tree locations by January 21.

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