Their father, Adam Szubin, explained as he drove.
The Szubin family was headed to an apartment building in Northwest Washington where dozens of homebound seniors were awaiting the arrival of their Christmas gift: a decorated bag of toiletries and food and a chance to visit with the D.C. families who volunteered to deliver them.
Though the Szubins do not observe Christmas — they’re Jewish — they were among hundreds of families who decided to spend Dec. 25 making the day a little more special for those who do.
Organized by the D.C. nonprofit We Are Family Senior Outreach Network — a group that provides hundreds of isolated seniors with free grocery deliveries, transportation, companionship and emergency cleaning assistance — the annual Christmas gift delivery drive is a highlight for many homebound seniors in the District who may be unable to visit with family or friends during the holiday.
“This guy who I have never spoken to before, who doesn’t know me from Adam, suddenly started to say that he was wishing for Christmas to just be over because it was reminding him of how alone he was,” said We Are Family founder Mark Andersen, who runs the organization with his wife, Tulin Ozdeger. “And I was moved to tears.”
Wednesday’s effort, which began in the sunlit chapel of Metropolitan Community Church, brought together families from different backgrounds, races, faiths and traditions. Volunteers delivered nearly 800 hand-packed gift bags.
Some wore Santa hats. Others donned festive Hanukkah sweaters. One woman identified herself as a humanist.
“We’re just happy that you’re here because that’s what we need — the common ground of all our beliefs that everybody matters,” Andersen said to the group. “We can learn so much from each other. We can build so much together.”
Longtime volunteers gave direction to first-timers, who packed gift bags with green and red tissue paper and folded note cards bearing the We Are Family hotline — Andersen’s cell number — and the slogan “Build bridges not walls.”
A family of four wearing plush red Santa hats said they decided this year to start a new tradition — one of giving instead of receiving on Christmas Day.
“I told my kids all I want for Christmas is for us to spend time together and be at peace and do something to help other people this year,” said Donna Blackman, 53, of Bowie, Md., who attended Wednesday’s gathering with her husband and two kids, ages 13 and 17.
The Szubin boys skipped up and down the halls of the seven-story apartment building in the Columbia Heights neighborhood that provides affordable housing to the District’s senior residents.
As Miriam Szubin called out apartment numbers, her kids knocked excitedly and pressed their ears up to the closed doors, waiting for someone to answer.
At the first door was Maria Lojo, 80, a small Spanish-speaking woman who marveled at the three boys before her.
“These are yours? Brothers?” she asked in English.
“Yes,” Miriam Szubin said, adding in imperfect Spanish, “mi hijos.”
She was spending Christmas alone, she said, and was happy to have the visit — even if it was brief.
“There’s a concert on the television that is very nice, but I enjoyed the interruption,” she said in Spanish after she bid the family farewell. “I’m a little lonely today.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 30 percent of people age 65 and older live alone, and with age, the likelihood of living alone increases.
A national survey of Americans age 45 and older by the AARP Foundation last year found that low-income adults are especially vulnerable to experiencing isolation and loneliness.
“Just because I don’t find Christmas really meaningful doesn’t mean Christmas isn’t a very, very special day for lots of people,” said Nathan, a seventh-grader at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School. “I don’t want them to feel alone or without presents or food or toiletries on a day that is so special to them.”
Orma Collins, 92, told the Szubins about her own family. How her mother died when she was young. How her sisters died over the past several years. How her great-niece, a smart young woman whose picture she keeps at eye level on her closet door, has been living in Indonesia.
She didn’t have any Christmas plans, she said. But she doesn’t mind being alone.
When she was young, Collins came to the United States from the South American nation of Guyana all by herself.
“I was the first one who came,” she said.
“Wow,” said Nathan. “You must have been really brave.”
Collins didn’t hear him. But it didn’t matter. The gift bag sat untouched on the counter as she beamed at the three boys, crowded together on her red couch, listening to her stories.