WINCHESTER, Va. (AP) — Ten years ago, after her father died following a short stay in a local nursing home, Betty Sue Unger, along with relatives and friends, decided to do something to bring a little Christmas cheer to 60 of the facility’s residents with no family members.

“It was supposed to be a one-time thing,” Unger said recently.

But when she saw the residents of Evergreen Health & Rehab Center open their gifts — a box of tissues, their favorite snack, little things — they were so grateful and touched that somebody thought about them that she knew “there was no way it was going to end there.”

A decade later, Unger is still delivering holiday happiness to residents of area nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, with help from an army of volunteers.

Betty Sue Unger, left, started Operation Remember 10 years ago at Evergreen Health & Rehab Center in Winchester, Va., to bring a little holiday cheer to the facility’s residents, pictured on Oct. 19, 2022, are resident Helen Walker, from left, Activities Assistant Caitlin Peele and resident Buzzy Braithwaite. “It was supposed to be a one-time thing,” she said. Since then, the group has grown into a full-fledged nonprofit that delivers Christmas presents and other gifts year-round to seven area nursing homes. (Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star via AP)

Operation Remember “has become a mission,” Unger said. “It’s not going anywhere.”

Last year, the group went so far as to attain its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.

“Before, it was just a bunch of people doing a good thing at Christmas,” Unger said. “Now, we do it year-round.”

In 2021, more than 600 people at seven nursing homes — four in Winchester/Frederick County, two in Front Royal and one in Clarke County — received personalized holiday gift bags from Operation Remember. Unlike the first year, everyone gets presents, not just those without family members.

“Our only goal is to bring smiles to their faces,” she said. “This makes a difference. We can’t fix their whole year, but we can fix Christmas.”

The first year, Unger remembers hearing a nursing home resident exclaim “I’m eating good tonight!” after he received chips and salsa, his favorite snack.

In this Oct. 19, 2022, photo, Operation Remember founder Betty Sue Unger of Frederick County, Va., says the group provided Christmas gifts to more than 600 area nursing home and assisted-living facility residents in 2021. (Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star via AP)

Another man, whose gifts were delivered to his room, “kept peeking out of his door,” she recalled. “He wanted to know where the gifts had come from. He said, ‘Well, it’s too much.” And we said, ‘No, it’s all for you.’ Five minutes later he had gotten dressed and was walking down the hallway. The staff couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.'”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when nursing homes were on lockdown, Operation Remember delivered puzzle books, crafts, snacks, sodas and other items to the residents.

“Operation Remember continues to grow,” Unger said. “Christmas will always be the biggest thing. But now we’re spreading it throughout the year. In a couple of weeks we’re doing our first Halloween party.”

Ten months out of the year, Operation Remember is “basically me,” Unger said. “But in November and December, a lot of people are involved.”

Gifts bags are personalized for each resident based on his or her wish list.

“It’s specific to that person, so when they open it, it’s all about them,” Unger said. “It’s not a generic bag.”

One of the recipients is Dennis “Buzzy” Braithwaite, who has been a resident at Evergreen Health & Rehab Center for seven years.

Even though he has a large family, “The first time he got a bag, he was like, ‘Wow,'” said his wife, Michelle Braithwaite. “He was like a kid at Christmas. He was very excited and thankful. He loves it. It’s a lot of fun for him to open things.”

She said her husband’s wish list includes items such as candy, snacks and socks.

“What they do is wonderful,” Michelle Braithwaite said about Operation Remember.

Volunteer help comes from churches, businesses, civic groups, “any kind of group,” Unger said.

“Some groups collect certain items, some groups fill wish lists.”

Wrapping parties are held to assemble the gift bags.

“It’s such an incredible program,” Unger said, adding that Operation Remember also makes a difference in the lives of the volunteers and donors. “People are used to seeing wish lists for little kids. When they see wish lists for the elderly, they just love it. This impacts people on every side.”
Unger said Operation Remember will grow “as we bring more people in.”