Hamilton's seniors come to Jill Harrington with their Christmas wish lists. But they're far from extravagant.

Soft tissues. A bottle of ginger ale and some bananas. A warm jacket for the frigid winter months. Diabetic socks.

These are the kinds of wishes coming from thousands of seniors who are living in welfare conditions in nursing homes and long-term care facilities in Hamilton and around the GTA, Harrington says. They're not looking for luxury — they're looking for basic necessities.

"When you grow old, often times there's just no one there," she said. "There's an awful lot of dignity taken away."

So after a particularly disheartening trip to a senior's facility at Christmas 13 years ago, Harrington started The Children of Christmas Past — an organization dedicated to making sure seniors get a visit and a gift on Christmas day.

How they help

Startin in October, long-term care facilities and nursing homes in Hamilton and across the GTA gather wish lists from seniors.

The lists from seniors are passed on to Harrington, who — with a team of volunteers — makes individual tags for each name and wish.

The tags are then placed on Christmas trees in private businesses and schools all over the GTA, and the trees' locations are listed on Childrenofchristmaspast.com.

People pick out a tag, buy the gifts, and drop them on Harrington's doorstep. Then a volunteer delivers them to senior's care facilities on Christmas Day.

The program just keeps growing. It started with a humble 75 gifts in 1999, and has ballooned to an estimated 4,000 presents this year alone.

That brings her total to about 25,000 gifts given in 13 years. Alongside Hamilton, trees are now stationed in Toronto, Georgetown, Mississauga, Brampton, Caledonia and even Alberta.

"Most times seniors are very happy to see us coming," Harrington said. "There's a very personal attachment to each gift."

But that isn't always true. Sometimes, the entire experience can be profoundly sad, Harrington says.

"Sometimes with dementia patients … by the time you walk away, they've forgotten you gave them a gift. So we have to bring extras," she said. "Another man once wanted a gift for his wife who had Alzheimer's and didn't remember him."

Then there are those that don't make it to the 25th.

"Some pass away before Christmas, so I end up pulling their names out of the pile," she said.

"And that is so hard to do."

Meeting the need

Harrington has never had to say no to a gift request, but she's worried this year might be the first. More and more seniors keep contacting her — some even directly.

Requests have come in for some big-ticket items like lift chairs and beds. She doesn't want to leave anyone disappointed, but it can be difficult.

She's imploring people to find trees in their area and join the cause. And if that's not possible — "I can always use more soft blankets for Christmas Day," she says.

"There's never enough."