As Valentine’s Day approaches, Elece Hempel’s office at the Petaluma People Services Center begins to resemble a mailroom — one Cupid himself would certainly adore.
Handmade valentines are stacked about, box upon box, made with love for unknown recipients. In 10 days, senior citizens throughout the Petaluma area will receive the special cards, along with the knowledge someone cares about them.
People from across town – and beyond — craft valentines from construction paper, card stock or doilies, adorned with stickers, ribbons, artwork and baubles, all with the hope their efforts will brighten a senior’s day.
It’s part of the center’s warm-hearted Special Delivery program to make sure no elderly person in town is overlooked on Feb. 14, the holiday known for long-stemmed red roses, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and greeting cards.
While roses wilt and chocolates disappear, the goodwill and kindness of a valentine has lasting effects, Hempel said, especially for a senior in need of some special attention.
“This is such a sweet thing to do, such a simple way to touch somebody in our community,” said Hempel, executive director at Petaluma People Services Center, a nonprofit providing more than 50 human services programs, including several for frail or isolated seniors.
“So many of our seniors are homebound, and they don’t get out in the community, but that’s not how they lived their lives.”
Getting a handcrafted valentine connects them to the community and benefits both the card maker and recipient, said Hempel, 57. “It’s that touch, that human touch that’s so important.”
Now in its seventh year, the Special Delivery program had an encouraging start. After hearing about a similar program from a friend in Spokane, Washington, Hempel wondered if she could gather enough valentines for several hundred Meals on Wheels recipients in Petaluma.
She put out the call and by Valentine’s Day, 700 handmade cards were ready for distribution. The program has grown substantially, with a renewed goal of providing a valentine for every senior in Petaluma.
Last year, organizers received more than 3,500 valentines; this year they’re hoping for more. Hempel sends out a single email to her large group of work contacts and posts invitations on the center’s Facebook page and website asking for old-fashioned card-making efforts.
“If you give someone an opportunity, they will jump at that opportunity,” Hempel said.
She typically receives valentines from school and church groups, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, local nonprofits like Mentor Me and organizations including the Petaluma chapter of the American Association of University Women.
Individual card makers contribute valentines, and groups of friends make it a tradition to create valentines for the program. Hempel and her friends host a brunch, mimosas included, and make valentines together, gratified their efforts will bring cheer on a day marked for love and remembrance.
Card maker Helena Scanlan and her friends have been part of the Special Delivery program from the start.
“It’s a win-win situation,” she said. “We have so much fun doing it. It warms our hearts when we make them.”
Plus, Scanlan said, “it’s going to put a smile on someone’s face and it’s going to make someone happy.”
A small group of freshmen from Casa Grande High School help out with the program, earning community service hours. Students check each valentine (never once finding anything inappropriate), write notes, sort cards and help coordinate distribution.
Valentines go to the center’s Senior Services Programs participants, affordable housing complexes and other senior facilities. The Casa Grande students reach out on Valentine’s Day, “walking around downtown looking for someone with gray hair,” Hempel said.
Valentines also are shared with seniors gathered for bingo at the Petaluma Senior Center, where they can select cards to share with others.
Hempel said among the 470-plus volunteers with the Petaluma People Services Center are seniors who also make valentines for fellow seniors.
Cards are delivered within the center’s service area, including Petaluma, Penngrove, Cotati, Rohnert Park and as far west as Bodega Bay. Recipients express their gratitude with phone calls or personal thanks to program managers, Meals on Wheels drivers and others who share the fun of making Special Delivery runs.
The variety of valentines always impresses Hempel and her team of helpers. From “some that are over the top” to those made by kindergarteners with construction paper and crayons, “the creativity always amazes me,” she said.
She’s enthusiastic that the program is “hitting a good percentage” of seniors in the Petaluma area, but notes “there’s always room for more.”