Members of the Austin Veterans Community Organization (AVCO) played Santa for fellow veterans living in senior housing and rehab facilities throughout the community, delivering gift bags to 73 veterans during the month of December.

According to Cassandra Normal, president of the South Austin Neighborhood Association and the member of AVCO’s event planning committee, the holiday initiative was one of the ideas veterans came up with while brainstorming projects for the upcoming months.

They wanted to reach out to veterans who were all but cut off from the outside world due to the pandemic restrictions and let them know that they weren’t forgotten. Due to the same restrictions, they couldn’t always deliver the presents directly, but the volunteers made a point to speak to every veteran they did see and find out where those veterans served.

AVCO was established in the summer of 2019 in order to raise awareness about the veterans, collect donations for veterans in need, connect veterans with programs and resources.  Norman said that AVCO falls under SANA’s umbrella and there is some overlap in membership.

They selected three senior housing developments to shower with gifts: the Lorraine Hansberry Apartments, 5670 W. Lake St.; the Senior Suites of Austin, 335 N. Menard Ave.; and the Crestwood Apartments, 525 N. Austin Blvd. 

They also selected two nursing homes and an assisted living facility: the Mayfield Care Center, 5950 W. Washington Blvd.; the Austin Oasis, 901 S. Austin Blvd.; and the Symphony of Chicago West, 5158 W. Jackson Blvd.

Norman said that seven veterans delivered the gifts. The gift bags included donations from Illinois Senate President Don Harmon (39th), the North Austin Council, the Campaign for a Drug Free Westside and Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes all six buildings and who is a veteran himself.

Due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the volunteers weren’t allowed to enter any of the nursing homes and Hansberry Apartments. On Dec. 16, they passed the gifts for Hanberry veterans through a Catholic Charities worker.

On Dec. 17, they delivered the gifts for veterans residing in the three nursing homes, handing them off to their respective activity directors. Norman said that AVCO veterans were able to personally deliver gift bags to Senior Suites on Dec. 8 and Crestwood Apartments on Dec. 16. The later drop-off was timed to coincide with the building’s Christmas party.

“Recipients introduced themselves by name, rank and branch of service, and also gave locations of their travels and years of service,” Norman said. “The interactions were very personal and heartfelt. Before parting we took photos. The veterans all appeared grateful for the acknowledgement and appreciated our visits.”

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