Oklahoma City retirement community residents raise funds for employees, gifts for children – Oklahoman.com

A retirement community’s residents in northwest Oklahoma City raised funds to donate to employees and their children in advance of the Christmas holiday.

The Holiday Gift Committee at Epworth Villa raised $104,000 in donations from residents and provided checks to 242 hourly employees at Epworth Villa.

“It’s certainly been difficult, because we were locked down last year due to COVID, and it’s still not normal,” said Frans VanAntwerpen, chairperson of the committee. “But the employees are really grateful. They tell you, ‘What I’m going to do is buy a pair of shoes for my kids,’ or, ‘I needed some new tires on my car,’ all of these things. A couple hundred dollars is not nothing.”

Located in northwest Oklahoma City, Epworth Villa is a nonprofit community offering life plans to older adults. It is affiliated with the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church. It offers independent living, assisted living and long-term nursing care. 

The Holiday Gift Committee, which is composed of several residents of Epworth Villa’s independent living community, has been fundraising year-round since it was formed in the mid-1990s. 

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“Every quarter, we hand out an envelope in the mailbox of the resident, with the name of the treasurer on it, and they can just put a check in there and then put it in our mailbox, and we take care of it,” VanAntwerpen said. “Of course, there are people who want to give the donation just one time a year, but a majority of the people really try to spread it out over the year.“

The cutoff date for donations is Nov. 30, and employees are distributed their checks from the fund during the Epworth Villa holiday party in early December.

This year, due to the ongoing pandemic, the party held on Dec. 10 in the Epworth Villa ballroom was scaled back to allow the residents to show their gratitude to employees in a safer environment. 

Five tables were set up in the ballroom, sectioned in alphabetical groups, so that volunteers and members of the fund committee could hand the enveloped checks to the employees in-person. 

Each check amount is proportional to the number of months that year the employee has worked, VanAntwerpen said.  Accompanying the check was a “thank you” letter from the committee.

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Tobias Acuna, a cook at the Epworth Villa cafe, has worked for the retirement community since 1997.

“It’s very helpful,” Acuna said. “I get to buy something for my grandkids, something for my wife, myself. You know, money is always helpful, and I think that’s a good gift from the residents.”

COVID-19 brought drastic changes in health guidelines, safety precautions and travel restrictions. For Acuna, working with food brought additional layers of stress.

“Every day, it felt like there were new steps we had to take, new stuff that we had to do,” Acuna said. “So I appreciate the residents really thought about us.”

A separate fund, called the Children’s Christmas Fund, also was established, and past holiday parties allowed families of the employees to participate. 

“You can register ahead of time, and besides the gift that we get, they have gifts for our children,” Acuna said. 

In previous years, Santa was regularly invited to the party so children could take photographs with him. Cookies and holiday bread often were baked for the event, as well. Since the pandemic, however, such activities have been limited, but the gifts for children still were provided. 

At this year’s holiday party, the committee passed out small gift bags filled with candy, coloring books, crayons and toys, while residents Meredith Hebblethwaite and Pat O’Connor took turns providing entertainment on the piano.

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VanAntwerpen said the committee meets once a month to plan the fundraising efforts and the end-of-year event, among other activities.

“By Oklahoma law, you’re not allowed to give, as an individual, a gift to the employees, so that’s why the fund was created in the past to take care of them,” VanAntwerpen said. “Because if people try to give ‘tips’ individually, then you also see preferential treatment, and that wouldn’t be fair. But as a group, you can give the money to the people.” 

Now approaching his 25th year at Epworth, Acuna said the holiday gift fund has been going on as long as he has been an employee.

“Epworth has been a really good place to work, and it’s not just for economic reasons, but because of the environment,” Acuna said. “The environment is really pleasant, because I think everybody enjoys working there, and we build really good relationships with the residents.”