Local News

Thursday, Nov 22 2012 08:00 PM

Sandy's seniors: BPD community relations specialist plays Santa

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Sandy Morris, who organizes Christmas for Seniors gift program, stands in front of boxes still in need of being filled at their headquarters at the East Hills Mall. Approximately 1,500 gifts will be given to senior citizens.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Sandy Morris looks at some of the gifts that typically go into a gift box for senior citizens. Gifts may include personal care toiletries; blankets and if the senior has a pet, sometimes they will receive pet food. In the background Don and Jo Ann Owen wrap gifts for the seniors.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Michelle Chatman, right, picks up material from Sandy Morris at the Gifts for Seniors headquarters at the East Hills Mall for cozy blankets she will make for the Christmas for Seniors program. It takes a host of volunteers to make the program, which serves approximately 1,500 seniors, work.

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BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

Sandy Morris takes a break from putting label stickers on gift tags to show her step-mother, who's come to volunteer for the day, which gift tags should be matched with labels.

"Jingle Bell Rock" plays in the background of a makeshift holiday workshop filled with Christmas wrapping paper, decorative boxes and gifts such as blankets, toilet paper and detergent. Every so often, Morris will belt out a line of the song.

Related Info

How to help

Members of the community can volunteer to wrap, sort and prepare the gifts at Christmas for Seniors' headquarters in East Hills Mall, 3000 Mall View Road, Suite 1125. The headquarters is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Those who wish to buy gifts for seniors can pick up a wishlist at the headquarters or at the Bakersfield Police Department, 1601 Truxtun Ave. Gifts must be returned to the place where the wishlist was picked up by Dec. 1. People can also donate individual items such as toilet paper, cleaning supplies and laundry detergent.

For more information, call Sandy Morris at 703-8893 or email her at smorris@bakersfieldpd.us.

"To rock the night away," she sings.

A few minutes later, a woman comes into the workshop, bearing gifts. She's brought two bags of gifts to donate to a senior: one for the senior and one for the senior's dog.

"You already brought back an ornament?" Morris asks the woman. "Yippy skippy!"

When the woman leaves, Morris turns around and says, "See what a wonderful thing this is."

That was the scene Tuesday afternoon at Christmas for Seniors' headquarters at a storefront in East Hills Mall. Christmas for Seniors, now in its seventh year, is a program run by the Bakersfield Police Department that provides necessities and gifts to low-income, homebound or isolated seniors. Morris, community relations specialist for BPD, is the program's committed and effervescent leader. In December, she's leaving BPD after 25 years to focus on her passion, helping seniors.

Morris started at BPD as a 911 operator. She was going through a divorce and needed a job to support her three children. She applied to be an operator, she said, because there were not many jobs for a 35-year-old just starting to work.

During her training, her eyes were opened to some cruel realities. She remembers the ride-along she had to go on where the officer was called to drug cases. The users looked like they were in their 70s, but were actually younger than Morris. She also went with the officer to a domestic violence dispute where the husband pulled the wife's hair out.

"I just could not believe the circumstances that this officer was being put in and that I was observing," she said. "I had no idea. I didn't realize that that world existed."

After four years, Morris was promoted to a service technician, where she helped to investigate crimes. For example, she said, if a home was burglarized, she would go to the home the next day to collect evidence and talk to victims, or "be the eyes and ears of the detectives," as she said.

She worked as a service technician for seven and a half years before moving to the Bakersfield Fire Department, where she worked in dispatch. One year of that and she was back to the BPD in the job she has now, community relations specialist, where she helps with crime prevention efforts like neighborhood watches.

As a community relations specialist her eyes were opened again -- this time to the abuse and scams seniors are subjected to. She kept seeing reports come through the police department where seniors were the victims of scams. Scams like someone calling in the middle of night claiming to a senior's grandchild in need of money to avoid getting murdered by foreign police. Or scams like mail claiming that by sending in money, the senior could win the Canadian lottery.

So, Morris started specializing in helping seniors. She goes to about 15 senior centers and a few community organizations with seniors groups each month to discuss topics ranging from personal safety to travel safety to identity theft.

"By no means am I an expert, but I've just about seen how they break into every kind of house, every kind of window, every kind of door, and so I can share the knowledge of how to effectively secure that," she said.

Evelyn Jones, 59, was living in Plaza Towers public housing when Morris came to speak to her and other seniors living there about safety. Jones has also received gifts from Christmas for Seniors each year since it started. She's been given toiletries, food, slippers, gowns -- anything she needs, she said.

When asked what she thinks of Morris, Jones said, "One word: heaven-sent. Well, two words."

The Christmas for Seniors program is a blessing, Jones said, because it shows that someone still cares about seniors.

Christmas was always an important time in the Morris household. Her father, Jimmy Morris, used to own a Christmas tree lot at University and Mount Vernon avenues. Morris helped hang price tags on the trees each year, Jimmy Morris said.

"She was really active in that. She loved the Christmas trees," Jimmy Morris said.

Louise Erreca, Morris' friend since kindergarten and a former employee at the Kern County Department of Human Services, said she thinks Morris started Christmas for Seniors as a way to fill the hole in her life where her father's Christmas tree lot used to be.

"No one could do this like she could," Erreca said. "This is Sandy."

Erreca volunteers with Christmas for Seniors each year. Delivering the gifts to the seniors is always the most special part, she said. And there's one delivery in particular that will always stick out in her mind.

On Dec. 10, 2011, Erreca and a few others delivered a table, chairs, pillows, clothes and several boxes of food and supplies to a veteran. The man had just moved into an apartment after being homeless for years. When the group arrived, the veteran was sitting on the apartment's single piece of furniture, a chair, looking out of the window into a parkway.

"I don't deserve this," Erreca remembers the man saying. She replied, "Yes you do. Why wouldn't you deserve this?"

Christmas for Seniors will continue next year when Morris is at her new job. BPD will still be involved, but Morris is taking her baby with her to ensure its survival.

"It's a lot of work, and I think if it stays at the police department it will get overlooked," she said. 'Because number one, there's not enough of us to go around."

In December, Morris will start working at Rosewood Retirement Community as the masterpiece living coordinator. That's a fancy title for bucket-list fulfiller, she said. If a resident wants to climb a mountain, she will arrange the training for that. If a group of residents want to go see a play, she'll book the bus and buy the tickets.

She'll also get the opportunity to learn from the seniors, she said. For example, Rosewood has cribbage tournaments each Friday. So, she's going to learn how to play cribbage.

It's a job she wasn't looking for and a job for which she'll make less money than at other places that have courted her. But, it turns out, it's a job that will fulfill what she's always wanted.

"I have a prayer. Every day on my way to work, I pray, 'Lord, let me make a difference in just one person's life today.' That's all. Just one person's life," she said. "And I think I'm going to be able to fulfill that every day over there."

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